GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 15, 2012

NOAA sustainability reports shows new gains

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

NOAA made its annual report Monday to Congress on the status of the nation's fish stocks, and noted that, in 2011 the so-called Fish Stock Sustainability Index — a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for 230 key fish stocks — continued improving for the 11th straight year.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created the index in 2000, it stood at 357.5; after 2011 it was at 598.5, an improvement of more than 67 percent, according to Monday's report.

The index calculations are shorthand for slow, steady improvement, which Emily Menashes, deputy director of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries, and Galen Tromble, chief of the Domestic Fisheries Division, emphasized in their joint national teleconference. The presentation came as the NOAA budget for fiscal 2013 remains divided, having cleared the House and the Senate Commerce Committee with a variety of amendments needing reconciliation.

The Senate version would defund the Northeast Division offices here in Gloucester and consolidate them in Silver Spring, Md., where NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is headquartered.

The House budget would not allow NOAA to fund new catch share commodification regimens, such as the one that has been used in the New England groundfishery for the past two full years, and is starting a third year, under economic, political and legal duress.

Tromble also acknowledged that the discouraging 2011 benchmark stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, which showed that the linchpin stock of New England's inshore fleet not rebuilding quickly, was not peer-reviewed in time to include it in the Annual Report to Congress on the Status of the Stocks, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The slippage in the expectation for Gulf of Maine cod was not an isolated case. Georges Bank cod and yellowtail flounder — also important stocks for Gloucester and New England's groundfishermen — were found in disappointing in numbers in updated assessments.

New England's are the "oldest long-standing fisheries," said Tromble, and were "heavily impacted by foreign fisheries" before the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976.

So "those resources have been under pressure for many years," Tromble said. "It's a challenging situation (without) easy solutions, but progress is being made."

The NOAA press statement effused that "a record six fish populations were declared rebuilt to healthy levels in 2011, bringing the number of rebuilt U.S. marine fish populations in the last 11 years to 27...

"This report documents historic progress toward ending overfishing, and rebuilding our nation's fisheries, due to the commitment of fishermen, fishing communities, nongovernment organizations, scientists and managers," the report indicated.

"Overfishing" is a term that means a documented rate of removal that is too high, while a stock is "overfished" when the population is too low. Both terms are used predicated on stock surveys, catch reports and various assumptions.

The difference between the optimistic benchmark assessment of Gulf of Maine cod in 2008 and the discouraging assessment in 2011 involved different metrics and assumptions used in making the assessments. NOAA has decided to do a third benchmark assessment on Gulf of Maine cod later this year with an toward setting the total allowable catch for 2013.

Based on the 2011 assessment, the catch limit on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing year that started May 1 is set at 22 percent lower than it was in 2011. But far more drastic cutbacks are expected from NOAA beginning May 1, 2013. The 22 percent cut is considered an interim measure.

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