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February 1, 2012

Lawmakers join call for interim cod rules

On the eve of today's landmark debate about the status and future of inshore cod — the dominant fish for both the commercial and recreational industries — controversy Tuesday continued to engulf the NOAA Science Center's dire assessment of the resource.

"The stock assessment does not appear to be complete," New Bedford Mayor Jonathan F. Mitchell wrote to C.M. "Rip" Cunningham, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, which is in the midst of its mid-winter meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.

The council agenda calls for discussion beginning at 1 p.m. today on the status of Gulf of Maine cod and a "possible request to the National Marine Fisheries Service for emergency action to address overfishing" of the iconic seafood.

Barring an emergency declaration, the science assessment would require a virtual shutdown of the fishery, which by all accounts would induce an economic catastrophe for the ports of New England, including Gloucester. But the Obama administration has signaled its willingness to use what limited flexibility exists in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to minimize the hardships in the short run.

Gloucester and New Bedford, the twin capitals of the groundfishing industry, would suffer almost equally in terms of lost income and revenues from an end to inshore cod fishing, but New Bedford's fishery is far more diversified with a primary revenue stream from top-dollar scallops.

Gloucester has little to fall back on; its fleet has lost its diversity over the past decades and now lists heavily toward owner-on-board day boats, which have scraped by with easy hauls of cod from Middle Bank — a section of Stellwagen Bank — off the Massachusetts shore.

"Without cod," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, "there's no fishing."

Based in Gloucester, the coalition, the region's largest industry group, has made itself the platform for 12 of the region's 17 sectors, including two that are limited to Gloucester boats. And it has proposed a setting of "interim limits" to deal with the cod crisis in the new fishing year, which begins May 1.

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