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January 18, 2012

Sonar-style cod study gains State House support

A supplemental state budget containing $1.3 million for a sonar-based assessment of Gulf of Maine cod stocks gained preliminary approval Tuesday in the state House of Representatives.

Members are debating floor amendments and could ship the $131 million spending bill to the Senate by the end of the week.

The status of Gulf of Maine cod — the stock on which inshore small boat fishermen depend — has become a matter of uncertainty after a 2011 assessment by a team from the NOAA science center at Woods Hole contradicted a 2008 benchmark assessment showing that the stock was nearly recovered from previous overfishing.

The new assessment concluded that, even if all cod fishing ceased, the stock could not meet its 2014 rebuilding deadline. Amid mounting skepticism about the validity of its science, the government must set catch limits for the 12-month annual fishing cycle that begins May 1 for cod and all groundfish. The conflicting assessments were based on trawl surveys and landings data.

NOAA has acknowledged the implications of the problem, organizing a workshop late last year. The agency is under pressure from both so-called green groups to protect the cod, and from political and fishing industry figures to move slowly lest unnecessary harm is done to the economies of fishing communities such as Gloucester.

The agency is already facing pressure from Gov. Deval Patrick who has filed new scientific studies that purport to prove that the combination of required catch limits and NOAA's now 2-year-old catch share management system have created an economic disaster.

The peer-reviewed 2011 results of the trawl survey are scheduled for public release next Wednesday in Providence at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council's Science and Statistical Committee. The full council meets the following week, with Wednesday set aside to deal with the cod dilemma and controversy.

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