By Richard Gaines
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced an effort to expand cooperative fishing research in New England, including — possibly in the near future — the use of a commercial trawler working in tandem with the new government research vessel Bigelow to help determine if the trawl catch jibes with the industry's.
Alan Risenhoover, NOAA's acting assistant administrator for fisheries, described various initiatives for cross-checking and improving stock assessments during a national teleconference to announce the interim or transitional total allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing cycle beginning May 1.
"We are designing experiments for commercial trawlers and it may involve parallel towing," he said.
The move to improve assessments comes in response to a so-called cod crisis, prompted by disparate results in two benchmark stock assessments three years apart, the latter done in 2010 and peer reviewed earlier this year.
NOAA will reduce the Gulf of Maine cod catch by a titular 22 percent below what was allowed in 2011, but in reality, Risenhoover explained, the reduction will be minimal for the commercial fleet.
Risenhoover said the inshore commercial boats are expected to land 4,200 metric tons of cod this fishing year, which rings down April 30. Of the 6,700 metric tons in the catch allowed in fishing year 2012, the commercial boats are getting 4,170 metric tons, which represents a reduction of only 30 metric tons, less than 1 percent.
Although the 17 sectors whose members are assigned catch shares proportional to their landings in an ll-year period ending 2006 typically set aside 10 percent as a buffer against overfishing, NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said the buffer is not required.
"It's not this year, it's next year" that is worrisome, Mooney-Seus said in a telephone interview Friday.
The decision to invoke flexibility arguably found in the Magunson-Stevens Act and therefore give the industry one more year of relatively constant catch levels kicks the imperative to end overfishing down the road for no more than one year. The move has been advocated by virtually every stakeholder — fishermen and non-government organizations alike.
Whether there will even be a directed Gulf of Maine cod fishery a year from now is uncertain, and will depend on many policy decisions to be made in coming months and on a new cod assessment to be undertaken in time for setting the 2013 total allowable catch.
The side-by-side trawl experiment will not be done in time to determine the accuracy of the trawl surveys by the Bigelow, which replaced the Albatross in 2009. NOAA has attempted to calculate the variables in the designs of the old and new research vessels, and if anything, NOAA officials and scientists say, the Bigelow is better at catching than the retired Albatross.
Still, the 2010 benchmark assessment ,which included trawl surveys by the Bigelow as well as landing reports and assumptions of mortality of discards, produced a shocking revelation — that Gulf of Maine cod was rebuilding at a much slower rate than the 2007 assessment which included trawl surveys by the Albatross.
Industry has been suspicious of government trawl surveys since "Trawlgate," the discovery early in the previous decade that the trawling by the Albatross was being done with poor technique and misuse of the technology, leading to excessively dire findings.
Risenhoover said that, in addition to cooperative research experiments to improve assessments, the government will attempt to decide whether cod is two distinct stocks, Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, or one super stock whose population moves between the two.
Another focus will be replacing the 100 percent mortality assumption made about discards by the recreational and commercial sectors, and integrating a more accurate estimate of recreational landings.
The latter two modifications — improvements — should be available for use in the upcoming assessment, but neither is expected to produce radical changes in the status of the stock.
The full extent of the next assessment will be determined in coming months, starting with the New England Fishery Regional Management Council meeting next week in Mystic, Conn.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.