An independent peer review of an already controversial study that suggests a rapid decline in cod stocks is set to begin this week — with potentially catastrophic implications for Gloucester's dayboat fishermen who fear the results could bring a shutdown of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery.
Just three years ago, a comprehensive stock assessment showed the Gulf of Maine cod was effectively rebuilding.
But, in data first spotlighted last month in the Gloucester Daily Times, preliminary figures suggest the valuable species is in dismal shape and won't rebuild within the timeframe set by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the framework for federal fisheries law.
In a worst-case scenario, that could mean a broad fishery shutdown to protect the cod. But that step would be drastic and a long ways away.
The preliminary data will first be reviewed beginning this week, and fishery managers will have other alternatives before a shutdown.
But as Steven Cadrin, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee team, told the Times in October, the assessment of Gulf of Maine cod points to findings that even a complete ban on landings would not allow the iconic stock to rebuild fully by the April 2014 deadline in the management plan.
"The stock can't meet the rebuilding deadline with no fishing," said Cadrin, an associate professor of oceanography at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology.
As the peer review approaches, anxiety is high.
To Gloucester's Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the estimates are yet another instance of fishery science conflicting with what fishermen see on the water.
He said cod isn't crashing, but is so plentiful fishermen are taking steps to avoid it so they don't exceed tough catch limits.
"There is a monstrous disconnect between that preliminary assessment result and all the other indicators of common sense," he said.
Gulf of Maine cod has long been crucial to the small boat fishermen north of Cape Cod, who catch it during day trips out of ports like Gloucester from Provincetown to Port Clyde, Maine.
In 2010, fishermen caught about 3,700 metric tons of it, pulling in $15.8 million — a figure second-highest behind Georges Bank haddock among the region's 20 regulated stocks of groundfish.
From a previous assessment, fishing cod should be considered a good bet. In that study of groundfish, released in 2008, the once-battered Gulf of Maine cod was no longer considered overfished and looked to be getting stronger. "Stock projected to rebuild rapidly," the report said.
Researchers, however, now say cod has had weak reproduction and the earlier report may have included some bad projections — including a faulty estimate on the amount of spawning in the Gulf of Maine cod. They now say that estimate was nearly triple the actual amount.
"Given the preliminary results, we are already exploring the flexibility in (federal fishery laws) to outline appropriate management responses," a prepared statement from NOAA indicated last week.
But industry leaders — wary from previous instances of false science such as the infamous "Trawlgate" studies at the turn of the century when NOAA and researchers later conceded the nets used could easily have missed tens of thousands of fish — believe the new data could also be so wildly off that no desperate measures are needed.
Giacalone said fishermen are now catching more cod in less time, in broader geographic areas and at a wider variety of ages and sizes than ever before. He said many fishermen recently installed net sensors to detect cod because they were worried about catching too much and exceeding strict catch limits.
"How could they possibly have an assessment that says cod is at a historically low level?" Giacalone said.
Cadrin, a University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth scientist who worked with the new data, said substantial changes can occur during a peer review.
"However, I think it's not likely that a much more positive result will come out of this," he said.
"Looking back, the 2008 assessment was clearly wrong," he said. "So, to me, we shouldn't be overly defensive of the scientific model because it's been shown to be wrong before."