Arch enemies on most ocean issues, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Recreational Fishing Alliance both expressed reservations Thursday about the whether a dire assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, the essential food fish for commercial and charter boats, can reliably be used to drive regulatory policy.
The peer-reviewed assessment, which leaked out with a jaw-dropping thud last fall, was put through a public debate and evaluation Wednesday in Providence, R.I., at a meeting of the Science and Statistical Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council.
The committee took a nearly unprecedented step of not ratifying the assessment, a move that legally keeps open several options for the regional council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Secretary of Commerce John Bryson.
Bryson and NOAA flagged the problem before the study was peer-reviewed, and has organized working groups to grapple with the legal and political implications of the assessment.
Under routine conditions, the assessment could support a shutdown of the fishery. But even less extreme action is projected to have frightening economic and social implications. Estimates from Wednesday's meeting projected the cod assessment as potentially delivering a $70 million hit to the economy of Gloucester alone.
The fishery council meets next week in Portsmouth, N.H., with Wednesday set aside to debate the discomforting options created by the need to protect a resource along with the industries — commercial and recreational fishing — that depend on it.
"The New England groundfish fishery faces a socio-economic, political and potentially environmental crisis," Jake Kritzer and Steve Cadrin, members of the Science and Statistical Committee, wrote to their colleagues in a paper that expressed concern that the assessment team may have defined the stock too narrowly.
Kritzer, a staffer with the Environmental Defense Fund, and Cadrin, a member of the faculty of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, wrote that the assessment process was not complete and, that before policy decisions are made, "stepping back for a deeper examination of the assessment process ... seems warranted."