By Richard Gaines
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."
Among the concerns was the 2011 assessment's blunt repudiation of a 2008 trawl study that found cod surging back toward sustainability by 2014 — the deadline in the 10-year rebuilding regimen set in response to congressional mandates. The new assessment also includes a presumption that all discards died, and a radically downsized re-estimation of the size of the recreational catch in 2010.
Switching to a new system for estimating the recreational catch, NOAA announced Wednesday it had determined that party and charter boats had taken about 2,000 metric tons of cod in 2010, rather than the 5,800 tons previously estimated.
Both the 2008 and 2011 assessments were done by the NOAA Science Center though new formulas, methodologies and even a new trawl survey boat have all helped create an apples-and-oranges impression, especially within the industry.
Mike Palmer of the NOAA Science Center, who defended his team's assessment in Providence, argued the difference was really better science than employed in 2008. He faulted the 2008 assessment for putting too much value on anomalous tows in 2003 and 2005 that effectively were exaggerated by good luck — concluding that there were huge year classes that seemed to vanish as time went on.
EDF officials acknowledged Thursday that the assessment process was "not perfect" and concluded that regulatory flexibility was called for in the short run.
The Recreational Fishing Alliance, meanwhile, sees the cod assessment as the sign of a deeper failing found in the rigid 10-year rebuilding time lines for "overfished" stocks written into the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Beyond the flexibility in short-term policy advocated by EDF, the alliance urged a rewriting of Magnuson-Stevens to codify the kind of flexibility the cod crisis case study seemed to call for.
"The concerns raised by fishermen, managers, and scientists regarding the cod assessment certainly justify further investigation into the true status of the cod stock," alliance executive director Jim Donafrio wrote in an email to the Times. "But unfortunately, the way the Magnuson-Stevens Act federal fisheries law is written does not provide these fisheries managers with the flexibility to develop a work plan to re-evaluate the Gulf of Maine cod stock.
"Basically," he continued, "cod has become yet another poster child for ongoing efforts to fix Magnuson. I hope we can count on seeing support from New England legislators when we all return to Washington D.C., on March 21 for the national fishermen's rally."
Johanna Thomas, EDF's regional ocean program director, noted in an email that the regional fishery council will vote next week on "whether to request the secretary commerce to declare emergency rule,"
"That action would allow NOAA Fisheries to establish 'interim' catch levels for the coming fishing year," she said. "We expect that the emergency action will be taken, and we support it. We agree that there needs to be some flexibility in how we respond to these latest numbers.
"The science is not perfect, as evidenced by the fact that the stock assessment three years ago was dramatically different from the present one," Thomas wrote.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.