By Nancy Gaines
In response to a controversial new federal study showing a direly diminished quantity of cod in the waters off New England, U.S. Sen. John Kerry called Thursday for a new assessment, because, in his words, "we simply need to get this right, right from the start."
In a sharply worded letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration leader Jane Lubchenco, and Eric Schwaab, who heads NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, Kerry said he "could not underscore how urgent and sensitive this is for Massachusetts fishermen."
The assessment has already been called into question by experts, including some who built the boat that measured the catch and others who participated in the research..
Said Steve Cadrin of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who worked with the NOAA study group, "I told the (New England) fishing council that I believed the biomass estimates of the fish were too low, the mortality rates too high, based on my investigations."
Kerry called for "further action" beyond the latest cod assessment, which would have "disastrous consequences." If reliable, the measurement could mean a death spiral for the iconic cod, and a shutdown of the catch in the New England fishery. Scientists who participated in the study have already expressed reservations about the government's findings.
"As you know, I have long urged NMFS to improve the quantity and quality of its stock assessments and to take steps to collaborate with local stakeholders," Kerry wrote. "The (Gulf of Maine) cod situation is further proof that the entire research and data process needs to be completely overhauled.
"Therefore," he continued, "I ask that you undertake an end-to-end review of the stock assessment process that includes the analysis and recommendations of outside parties...," including "industry leaders," he added.
Last week's anomalous assessment of the health of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine (Cape Cod north to Nova Scotia) by the federal New England Fishery Management Council reversed the optimistic report from a benchmark study released in 2008.
If the results are true, it could mean the death rate of cod is five times the definition of overfishing, said Cadrin.
A subcommittee of the fishing council will develop a recommendation for consideration at its meeting next month.
Reflecting the enmity between fishermen and federal regulators, Kerry said:
"I have been particularly dismayed in recent years to see these issues become more and more difficult and divisive ... tensions have reached a boiling point.
"If there is going to be a well-managed outcome to this situation, it hinges on a level of trust ... I'd emphasize the word 'trust.'"
Correspondent Nancy Gaines co-authored the Times' 2010 special series, "Fishery Under Siege." She is a veteran reporter and editor for Boston and national publications.