Fishing industry leaders and rank-and-file fishermen greeted NOAA's 2012 interim Gulf of Maine cod catch limits with resignation Tuesday, noting that the numbers were expected and could easily have been worse.
But they also said the limit of 6,700 metric tons, set for the new fishing year that begins May 1 and a 22 percent cut from the current year's total allowable catch, could devastate the industry.
"We knew they'd go with the lowest number they could get away with," said Gloucester fisherman Paul Cohan, referring to the fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used the low end of the range of 6,700 to 7,500 metric tons urged in February by the New England Fishery Management Council.
NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Sues said NOAA could not have gone any higher with the limit without running afoul of the Magnuson-Stevens Act's rules to eliminate overfishing of Gulf of Maine cod within a strict deadline.
NOAA is accepting comments on the limit until June 4, Mooney-Sues said, and she said NOAA would welcome all input. The limit is in place through Sept. 30.
Mooney-Sues said NOAA had faced the possibility of setting limits at 1,100 metric tons — a prospect that Cohan and others dismissed as absurd.
"I just can't understand why they haven't fast-tracked a new assessment, with all the problems," said Cohan, who owns and operates the fishing vessel Sasquatch. "This is life or death for some of us."
Debates over the accuracy of the 2010 stock assessment, whose projections fuel the catch limits, have raged since the assessment first came out late last year, but complaints have been gaining steam. While data from a 2008 assessment painted a picture of a Gulf of Maine cod fishery nearing recovery, the 2010 assessment found a dramatically different result — and NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco has steadfastly refused demands from U.S. Sen. John Kerry and other federal and state lawmakers to commission a new study.
"Stock assessments haven't been updated since 2008. They are basically speculations," said Brian Rothschild, a leading New England fisheries expert and chief marine scientist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Rothschild said that the assessment, if accurate, could warrant limits this low. But with the validity of the assessment in doubt, the calculus changes.
"The basic problem is that we don't know the level the stock is at," said Rothschild.
According to Rothschild, "people are really scratching their heads" trying to figure out why NOAA has not ordered a new assessment.
Cohan said he is one of those people.
"I don't really buy into the idea that this assessment is correct. It doesn't jibe with what we've been seeing (on the water)," Cohan said.
Cohan said his business, already essentially forced to enter the catch share management and sector system, can't survive a more serious cut, though NOAA officials and others have said the 2013 catch limits, without changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, will be much deeper.
"We cannot take a 22 percent cut in revenue. I've been hanging on just by being obstinate, but I'm running a deficit business," said Cohan.
Cohan said he looks to Congress to reform the system, hoping that a lifeline will come from the Legislature.
Congressman John Tierney, meanwhile, said in a statement Tuesday that he hopes to provide that lifeline.
"While I am pleased that the catch limit is not as low as initially anticipated, I continue to have serious concerns with this new catch share system and the potentially devastating impact these new catch limits are going to have on many in the fishing industry," Tierney said. "The Gulf of Maine cod crisis is part and parcel of a deeply flawed regulatory system. Once again, I note the necessity for Congress to begin work on reforming this system and to put more flexibility into the law."
According to Cohan, that work can't come too soon.
"Our only salvation is going to come from immediate congressional action in the form of financial relief and Magnuson reform, and it's got to come soon," he said. "If someone doesn't throw us a line, you'll be looking at a completely different industry."
Stephanie Bergman can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or email@example.com.
To submit comment on the interim limits for Gulf of Maine cod, identified as ''NOAA-NMFS-2012-0045,'' send them by June 4 to:
Electronic submission: via www.regulations.gov. First click the ''submit a comment'' icon, then enter NOAA-NMFS-2012-0045 in the keyword search. Locate the document you wish to comment on from the resulting list and click on the ''Submit a Comment'' icon on the right of that line.
Mail: Daniel Morris, Acting Regional Administrator, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930.
All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted for public viewing on www.regulations.gov without change.