By Richard Gaines
Admittedly flummoxed by an unexpectedly dire scientific assessment of inshore cod, NOAA and its New England Fishery Management Council have called a general meeting of stakeholders on Friday to brainstorm options for the new fishing year that begins May 1.
The informal meeting has been set for the Portsmouth Harbor Events and Conference Center, in Portsmouth, N.H., from noon to 4 p.m. Sam Rauch, who heads the cod crisis team at NOAA, is expected to attend.
Rauch was at last Wednesday's regional council meeting that produced furious debate about the validity of the science in the assessment, whose findings can trigger extreme conservation measures mandated by Congress in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
A compromise motion that passed the council and went to Commerce Secretary John Bryson formally asks him to take emergency action by setting an interim, one year, catch limit on cod, and recommends a broad range of between 6,700 metric tons to 7,500 metric tons.
The low end of 6,700 metric tons would represent about a 13.6 percent cut in cod landings.
The setting of the cod catch via an interim rule is certain to further weaken the economic viability of much of the groundfishing fleet, which is already undergoing significant consolidation through tight catch limits and the unregulated catch share commodity trading system, which was first instituted in May 2010.
With the catch share system consolidating more control of the catch in the hands of large-scale boats, corporations and catch share managing organizations, NOAA's own figures show the Gloucester fleet alone lost 21 of its approximately 96 boats in the 2010-2011 fishing year. And a reduction in the cod catch would deal another multi-million dollar hit to Gloucester's economy, according to figures from the Social Sciences branch of NOAA's own Science Center.
The catch limit range approved by the council is far higher than the 1,100-metric ton catch limit that would be dictated by the assessment, which essentially reversed a 2008 assessment that indicated cod stocks had nearly recovered. That earlier study, however, also led to a plundering of cod on Stellwagen Bank and possible misreporting of landings between the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, a ranking state fisheries official and numerous commercial fishermen said last week.
As the Magnuson-Stevens Act is now interpreted, a boat reports where its haul came up, not where the trawl actually did its work. And that distinction, according to David Pierce, the state's deputy director of marine fisheries and a council member, and many fishermen interviewed by the Times, has allowed big boats that work typically out of New Bedford on Georges Bank, far at sea, to make runs through the inshore stock reporting the catch to be from Georges.
"Regulators are interested in taking action" in the misreporting, Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, wrote in an email to a selective audience last Thursday. Most of the email recipients were members of the Gloucester-based coalition, which provides the platform for 12 of the 17 sectors that organize boats by size, gear type and homeport.
The same email flagged "extensive" discussion on what became failed motions by Pierce to require boats to fish in either the inshore grounds of Stellwagen or the offshore waters of Georges, but not both.
Odell's email, citing the analysis of Vito Giacalone, the coalition's policy director as well as the president of the Gloucester Community Preservation Fund, described the coalition's belief that "flexibility" to fish both sides of the line in a trip as a "critical need."
In November, Odell and Giacalone, along with the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, also sent a letter signed by more than 100 fishermen — about one quarter of those with permits — urging the government to back off any potential changes to the catch share amendment and allow the free market in catch shares to continue driving consolidation.
In an emailed statement announcing the Friday public meeting of the cod crisis working group, Rauch said, "Early on, given the unexpected nature of the stock assessment results and the potential implications, NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council committed to work together to aggressively evaluate the science, develop management responses, and take action to help fishermen and fishing communities."
"We want to thank everyone for the extraordinary steps taken that will enable us to work well beyond the default catch limit of approximately 1,000 metric tons," he added. "Both NOAA and the council recognize the devastating impact this would have on fishermen and fishing communities, and we are committed to looking for a different way forward."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.