The acting head of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is signaling that his agency would allow a 6,700-metric ton catch limit for Gulf of Maine cod as a one-year interim figure for the new fishing year that begins May 1.
But the figure — noted by NMFS' Sam Rauch in a New England Fishery Management workshop meeting Friday in Portsmouth, N.H. — marks the low end of a range of interim limits recommended by the council the previous week.
It would mean a 22-percent cut in the catch that Gloucester and other New England groundfishermen are being allowed to haul in this fishing year. And Rauch himself acknowledged that "it's going to be hard to preserve the industry" at the potentially still lower catch numbers in line for 2013.
The 6,700 metric ton limit is at the floor of a recommended range of between 6,700 and 7,500 metric tons the New England council sent to NOAA earlier this month, as the industry grappled with what NOAA scientists and officials say is a "crisis" in the cod stocks.
That fear is spawned by a 2011 trawl study that showed an unexplained but significant depletion in Gulf of Maine cod just three years after an earlier assessment that found the stock recovering and, in fact, on the verge of recovery.
A final decision regarding any interim catch limit for the coming year is still to come from NOAA and the Secretary of Commerce. An interim limit would essentially grant fishermen a one-year reprieve under deeper cuts that would be mandated by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act given the new and dire trawl data.
The new study also contradicts the 2010 declaration by then-lead NOAA marine scientist Steve Murawski, who hailed what he viewed as the end of "overfishing." It goes against the grain of the plentiful cod New England fishermen themselves are finding in the waters.
And many fishermen have raised dire questions once again about the accuracy of the study, which NOAA carried out with the use of a new research boat and with other differences from previous trawls.
"We don't trust your data," New Hampshire charter boat fisherman Bill Wagner told regulators. "We don't believe there's a shortage of codfish. We don't believe there's a crisis in codfish."
Massachusetts State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Gloucester Democrat who, along with Sen. Bruce Tarr, has been at the forefront of Gloucester's and the state's fight over NOAA's policies and regulatory tactics, criticized what she characterized as the constant, massive swings in scientific assessments on the size of fish populations.
"We're always in the same dilemma and I don't understand why," she said.
But despite calls from state lawmakers, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, and federal lawmakers up to and including U.S. Sen. John Kerry for a new, independent cod assessment — and one carried out with fishermen actively involved in the process — NOAA chief administrator Jane Lubchenco has refused to commission any such study.
Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone said the new assessment has put the fishing industry "on death row."
"The anxiety the industry feels is unprecedented," he said
With so much doubt about the science behind the new data, Cottone said, regulators should give fishermen as much fish to catch as possible while they try to remove uncertainties in the numbers.
"To basically flip the switch on the industry with so much reasonable doubt would be irresponsible," he said.
Beyond a potential 6,700 metric ton limit for the coming year, new projections discussed Friday indicate that — after the emergency rule expires in 2013 — fishermen are again looking at a cut in cod catch just as severe as the huge reduction they were originally facing under the study.
From a dollar standpoint, those are projections that could deal an overall hit of up to $70 million to Gloucester's economy, according to figures cited at an earlier review of the cod study in Providence, R.I.
Rauch said the verifying and improving the science is a top priority, and no one can predict if any new work can find something in the next year that significantly improves the assessment of cod health.
"It's always possible we'll find something there, but even if we don't, this year allows us time to better plan ... for where this industry may end up," Rauch said.
"Fishermen are resilient, they figure out ways to adapt," he said. "But this will be hard to adapt to."