By Richard Gaines
The federal government, and the fishing industry — the commercial and recreational sides alike, with deep dependence on inshore or Gulf of Maine cod — have entered uncharted waters found by NOAA to hold far fewer cod than anyone could have guessed just months ago.
Now, what to do about the cod crisis sits at the top of the agenda of the New England Regional Fishery Management Council this Wednesday afternoon in the middle of its three-day February meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.
Signaling the depth of the dilemma and joining the deliberations will be Sam D. Rauch III, the nation's acting assistant administrator for fisheries, "along with many of my key staff," Rauch announced at the end of a lengthy letter sent late last week to the council.
It was dated Thursday, the day after the dire results of a 2011 stock assessment was vetted by the council's independent Science and Statistical Committee meeting in Providence, R.I.
Despite much uncertainty about the correctness of the new assessment — it undercuts its 3-year-old predecessor assessment — Rauch outlined the limited legal options available, given the finding that the inshore cod stocks had been overfished and remain subject to overfishing.
A routine response to these findings could be a complete shutdown of the fishery, but even allowing 500 metric tons to be harvested would cost the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford as much as $170 million, according to economic modeling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and data presented to the Science and Statistical Committee last week.
Rauch wrote that federa; Secretary of Commerce John Bryson was prepared to receive a request from the council to implement "an emergency or interim action" on cod that would "reduce" rather than "end overfishing." But he also emphasized that any "emergency/interim" plan would be required by law to "make a substantial reduction in overfishing and must, at a minimum, not further deteriorate the condition of the stock."
Until word leaked out about the 2011 assessment late last year (covering the period 2007 to 2010), the government, the industry and even hard-line environmental groups had been operating on what has become officially labeled as false and befuddling information — that of all the troubled stocks in the New England multi-species mix, Gulf of Maine cod was on the most desirable trajectory of all, rebuilding toward sustainability.
Rauch made this point abundantly clear in his letter.
"The lack of adequate progress was not due to any failure on the part of the New England Fishery Management Council to take necessary action to meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act," he wrote.
"Nor was it due to any failure on the part of fishery participants to act in compliance with applicable regulatory measures," he wrote. "Rather, the lack of adequate progress is due to a new and significantly revised understanding of the condition of the stock since the 2008 assessment was completed."
His letter also emphasized the uncharted nature of the cod problem entailed in meeting the conservation mandates in the Magnuson-Stevens Act while remaining true to the same law's charge to protect the economies dependent on the fisheries.
"As the National Marine Fisheries Service and its regional management council consider pursuing this unprecedented approach to addressing the unique situation we are now in with Gulf of Maine cod," Rauch wrote, "we recognize there are many policy determinations that must be addressed for the first time and that the council will require guidance from the agency.
In early January, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco rejected U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick's requests for a new assessment before deciding how to manage inshore cod in the fishing year that begins May 1.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.