By Richard Gaines
In recent weeks, NOAA Fisheries has signaled a willingness to slide past a dire assessment of Gulf of Maine, or inshore, cod to give the industry a year of relief — with a 22 percent cut in the catch limit as a feasible interim adjustment, as opposed to one much deeper.
But for 2013, it will likely take an act of Congress to save the inshore fishery from a virtually complete shutdown due to catastrophic cutbacks — as much as 90 percent — in the Gulf of Maine cod limit, according to industry leaders and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.
Now, industry leaders David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman and three-term member of the New England Fishery Management Council, and Brian Rothschild, a professor of marine science and technology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth are pointing to the need for Congress to override the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is said to allow just a single year of "interim" catch limits before requiring the government to align catch limits with the official assessment of the stock and end overfishing.
In email exchanges with the Times, Goethel and Rothschild agreed on the need for Congress to authorize a second year of higher catch limits than the 2011 assessment would justify while the government voluntarily or in response to congressional mandates undertakes a comprehensive new assessment of the region's legendary fish.
In New England, individual stocks routinely are assessed every three years.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a high NOAA official said the first in a series of announcements from the crisis management team about 2012 will be made possibly within days and almost certainly before the end of the month.
At its February meeting, the regional council, an arm of NOAA, asked the government to make no more than a 22 percent cut in the 2011 catch as its interim act; a week later, Sam Rauch, NOAA's acting administrator for fisheries, told an emergency fisheries forum that limiting the cut to 22 percent for the 2012 fishing year, beginning May 1, was doable.
While Goethel and Rothschild are far from alone in recognizing the need to accelerate the assessment process for cod — because of seeming contradictions between 2008 and 2011 assessments, with the first showing a stock rebuilding rapidly, the latter showing the opposite — there is no routine way to get the work done in time for the 2013 setting of catch limits.
Goethel said the NOAA Science Center at Woods Hole "claims it could not possibly undertake the work" involved in conducting a benchmark assessment that attempts to deymstify the conflicting results of the previous assessments in time to form a credible basis for the 2013 catch limit.
However, he said, "Congress through a special appropriation or congressional act can order such work to be done. Similarly, Congress would have to override Magnuson in order for us to set an interim catch limit in 2013 or beyond while the work is done.
"Hence, the dilemma we are in," Goethel said, "Absent some creative interpretation of Magnuson by NMFS (NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service), Congress will have to intervene or the Gulf of Maine will close to fishing in 2013."
Rothschild said he agreed with Goethel's analysis. Both leaders have identified a range of issues to be examined in an emergency assessment, but Rothschild has criticized the 2011 assessment as incomplete — "not really finished."
"The council needs to be informed on a range of items that have not been included in the assessment," he wrote.
"We already have a considerable knowledge of stock structure from life history, tagging, and genetic studies," Rothschild said, noting that the studies show that Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank (or off shore) cod mix with each other, suggesting that stock definition must be redefined to produce a bonafide assessment.
Goethel made similar points in his emails
"I believe this is a major effort that requires the participation of academic scientists, state scientists, NGO (non-government organization) scientists, and fishermen knowledgeable in the fishery, as well as NOAA Science Center and Canadian scientists," wrote Goethel. "I would anticipate this effort to take several years, but it could be done in less time with sufficient funding and political horsepower behind the effort."
Asked by the Times to respond to the email exchange, a high NOAA official said, "They're asking the right questions."
Speaking without authority, the official also agreed with Goethel and Rothschild that, without congressional action to override the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the government will likely have no choice but to impose what in effect would be a shutdown of the fishery in May 2013.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Friday, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, questioned NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, about the problem of the disparate assessments and the dilemma posed by the dramatically more pessimistic result.
"How can you ask the fishermen in my state to trust the stock assessment when you see such disparities?" Ayotte said. "And what are you going to do about 2013 to make sure you don't put them all out of business?
In January, Lubchenco wrote to U.S.Sen. John Kerry, declining a proposal made jointly with Gov. Deval Patrick to use the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute, industry and independent scientists to conduct an emergency assessment to set the 2012 cod catch limit.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.