GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 11, 2012

New cod study to target 2013 limits

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

A new, expedited assessment of Gulf of Maine cod will be conducted this year for use in setting 2013 catch limits.

But a fishing industry leader is predicting continued consolidation of the fleet, and is fearful that, after this year's 22 percent cut in the allowable cod catch, the worst by far is still to come.

The extent of the new assessment will not be determined until after the New England Fishery Management Council's meeting in two weeks, a spokeswoman for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

On the heels of the 2011 assessment report that set the industry on its heels, the decision to conduct another Gulf of Maine cod assessment was mentioned almost as an afterthought in the announcement last week of the 22 percent cut in the 2012 catch limit for Gulf of Maine cod.

Yet, pending a game-changing surprise, industry analyst, fisherman, banker and businessman Vito Giacalone predicts the industry faces a bleak future that will encourage a continuation of "cannibalism," a word he prefers to the more technocratic "consolidation."

The 22 percent cut coming out of the dire 2011 cod report was a "transitional" decision, based on legal theories of what the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows — reducing overfishing but not ending it, while a rebuilding program to replace the one that failed is crafted by the council and NOAA.

Beyond the 22 percent cut under interim limits covering from the May 1 start to the new fishing year to Sept. 30, uncertainty in even the existence of a directed inshore cod fishery next year is the great destabilizer, Giacalone said in a New Bedford radio interview.

Giacalone is a board member and policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund or permit bank, developer of a fish auction business property, as well as an active groundfisherman, and an industry representative in cod crisis discussions with NOAA since last year.

Because of the uncertainty and fear that the 22 percent cut for this year will set the stage for truly draconian limits on inshore cod landings next year, Giacalone predicted that more and more fishermen will decide to stay at home and lease out meager catch share allocations this year.

"As leasing (becomes) more aggressive," he said, "profitability (goes) out of the business."

Giacalone said that, if the industry is not already in failure from the cut announced last week and fear of far worse yet to come, it will be by 2013.

He reiterated the written position of the Northeast Seafood Coalition that the governors of the five coastal New England states should coordinate with the governors of New York and New Jersey to convince the federal government to declare a systemic fisheries failure before it is too late.

"We have a federal fisheries failure, we need to prepare now before we have a whole set of vessels ready to go out and no place to go (next spring)," he said in the radio interview. "Why do we have these crazy roller coaster rides of TACs (total allowable catches)?"

Deep in the news release announcing the 22 percent cut in the TAC for inshore cod for the year beginning May 1, NOAA said it "will also conduct a new assessment of Gulf of Maine cod in 2012, in time to set fishing year 2013 catch limits."

"Whether it is a full benchmark assessment is yet to be determined," NOAA spokeswoman Allison McHale said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "The extent of the new assessment is uncertain" and will be until after the regional council meeting in Mystic, Conn., two weeks hence.

During the 2012 catch limit teleconference announcement on April 2, the new assessment was described as using the same "modeling approach" as was used in the 2011 assessment, which was a benchmark assessment because of changes in the modeling and formulas.

That assessment — based on trawl survey data, commercial landing reports and estimates of recreational landings — landed with shock value, showing that the size of the spawning stock was barely one-third the size found only three years earlier.

There has been no explanation by NOAA of the contradictory assessments, and when U.S. Sen. John Kerry last fall urged NOAA to undertake an emergency assessment to resolve the conflict before setting catch limits for this year, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco demurred, explaining there was insufficient time.

As described by NOAA last week, the expedited assessment would plug updated catch reports and modified assumptions about the survival rate of discarded fish (now assumed to be zero) into the preexisting formulas.

But McHale emphasized the "extent of the new assessment is uncertain."

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.