GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 27, 2011

NMFS chief: Cod study is viable

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The administrator of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service has expressed confidence in the stock assessment science, that over a three-year period found nearly a 300 percent drop in the weight of spawning aged cod in the Gulf of Maine.

"It is quite possible that both surveys were right and that something happened in the ocean," federal fisheries administrator Eric Schwaab said in a radio interview.

However, Schwaab also acknowledged that the likelihood that 22 million tons of spawning age Gulf of Maine cod had vanished between a study that showed the stock as healthy in 2008 and the more recent survey released in early December was "out of the norm."

Schwaab did not speculate about what might have happened to the cod, a fish that represents upward of 60 percent of the income for the fleet of 60 to 100 Gloucester based boats, according to Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition and whose three sons own one of the port's fish auctions.

Schwaab said the fisheries service was "open" to the request from members of the congressional delegation led by Sen. John Kerry as well as Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank that a new Gulf of Maine cod assessment be undertaken.

However, in the interview last Wednesday with Bob Vanasse on Saving Seafood Radio, carried by New Bedford station WBSM-AM, 1430, Schwaab suggested that any new stock survey would not be done before the setting of catch limits for the 2012 fishing year, which begins May 1.

Schwaab said it might take the New England Fishery Management Council two meetings to determine how to address the discouraging assessment which concluded that the size of the spawning aged Gulf of Maine cod had declined from 34,000 metric tons to 12,000 metric tons.

The next council meeting is scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 2, with the following meeting set for late April.

The recent cod assessment is undergoing final peer review and is expected to be presented to the council's Science and Statistical Committee in time for debate on the crisis to begin at the January-February meeting.

The decline in the size of the cod stock, according to the assessment, is so extreme that even if the regional fishery management council shut off all landings the 2014 rebuilding deadline for the stock, set by the council in the management plan, still could not be met, experts say.

Schwaab said he was determined to find an approach that did not punish fishermen for following the hard catch limits set by the service in the management plan.

The regional fishery management council must choose a catch level for the stock, but the final decision on the management of fisheries resides with Commerce Secretary John Bryson.

Giacalone said the new assessment "doesn't sit well" with the policy of setting hard catch limits, then allocating shares to be landed, traded or sold.

The so-called catch share system, which has become the Obama administration's preeminent fisheries reform policy, went into effect in May 2010 for the New England groundfishery, and that includes for the Gulf of Maine cod.

Preceding Schwaab on the same radio show last week, Giacalone said he believes the federal government should allow the Gulf of Maine cod fishery to remain on its current tact until the government gets a better handle on the science of assessments.

"It's prudent to use common sense," he said. "Look at the catches, we have a stock that has increased in size no matter what the stock assessment says."

Brian Rothschild, a marine scientist at University of Massachusettts-Dartmouth, said he believes the stock assessment process had become overwhelmingly complex, and is simply no longer reliable.

"We're looking at stocks in too complicated a way," said Rothschild.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.