While fishing industry group and federal lawmakers have sought to ease dire new catch limits seen as threatening Gloucester’s and New England’s groundfishery, a leader of at least one prominent environmental group says the limit cuts of up to 77 percent “did not go far enough.”
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation Massachusetts, wrote in the foundation’s online newsletter, reporting the New England Fishery Management Council’s January approval of new limits that would cut the maximum landings of Gulf of Main cod by 77 percent for both the new fishing year that begins May 1, and for 2014. The regional council, at the same session, also cut the Georges Bank cod allowable catch by 61 percent for both this year and next.
In his report, Shelley wrote that “recent assessments showed stocks at the lowest levels and declining rapidly. The fish just aren’t there anymore.”
“However, this cut to cod quota did not go far enough,” Shelley wrote. “The council implemented the least aggressive cuts allowable by law, and they pushed the limits of scientific advice.
“Failing to shut down the fishery puts short-term economic interests over the long-term health of New England’s cod fishery and the viability of a whole generation of groundfishermen,” he wrote.
Shelley’s comments reflected the council’s choice to peg the accepted biological Gulf of Maine cod catch at 1,550 metric tons — the relatively higher option presented by the council’s Science and Statistical Committee, which outlined the result of its latest stock assessment.
But many within the fishing industry and fishery groups have raised questions regarding the validity of the 2011 and newest assessments, which conflicted wildly with a 2008 assessments found cod stock in the midst of solid recovery. NOAA’s science program has also come under fire for not allowing rank-and-file fishermen to participate in the stock assessments under cooperative research efforts previously urged by now-former U.S. Sen. John Kerry, and fishermen have also raised questions about NOAA’s gathering methods using its new research vessel, the Bigelow.
The new cod cuts come on top of interim limits with a 22 percent cut allowed for the current fishing year by NOAA and the council under the Magnuson Act, and a number of lawmakers — including Kerry and Congressman John Tierney — had urged NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator John Bullard to extend the interim limits for another year. That course had also been urged by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the industry’s largest regional policy group.
Bullard, however — acting, he said, on the advice of NOAA chief general counsel Lois Schiffer — told the council and the industry that the agency interprets Magnuson as barring a second year of interim rule.
Shelley’s proposal to shut down the cod fishery altogether is not the first time that recommendation surfaced. Fishery management council member David Goethel, a New Hampshire groundfisherman, made a similar proposal at the January council meeting —though for a dramatically different reason.
Goethel argued at the time that it made more sense to shut the fishery down to dramatize the hardship in hope that NOAA and Congress would recognize the crisis with disaster relief — and the need to rethink the science and the management of the fishery. He said a dramatic act that spared no one was preferable to “throwing 90 percent of the fishermen under the bus,” but got no support on the council for taking that step.
The acting Commerce secretary, Rebecca Blank, waited 11 months until last September to approve an economic disaster declaration for Massachusetts and the other groundfishing states, but neither Commerce nor NOAA have offered any financial aid to address the situation, and Congress deleted $150 million in fishery disaster funding from the $60 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster package before sending it to the White House last month.
Congressman John Tierney is now in the process of filing a bill that would provide disaster relief to the industry through a reallocation of $100 million or more through import tariff revenues in accordance with the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act.
That historic legislation was set up to steer 30 percent of seafood tariff revenues into a fund aimed at promoting or boosting America’s fisheries, but, over time, that money has instead been allocated into NOAA operations, where it remains today.