By Richard Gaines
A peer review panel Thursday validated a exceedingly grim stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod finding that the foundation fish for the inshore dayboat fleet, operating primarily out of Gloucester, is overfished and subject to continued overfishing.
So bad was the assessment — reversing the optimistic report from a benchmark 2008 assessment — that the rebuilding deadline of 2014 could not be met even if all Gulf of Maine landings of cod were halted, experts say.
The peer review panel of four issued its findings during a week-long meeting at the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole.
"A final assessment report, incorporating the recommendations of the reviewers, will be available by the January New England Fishery Management Council meeting, where it will presented," said NOAA spokeswoman Teri Frady.
Based on the stock assessment, the council's Science and Scientific Committee will develop a recommendation for consideration at the January council meeting.
"The results will have devastating implications for the Gulf of Maine groundfishery," said SSC member and former chairman Steve Cadrin. "Even in the best-case scenario, the impact will still be devastating."
He said the new assessment found that cod mortality was five times the definition of overfishing.
Fishing industry leaders Thursday also saw a grim future based on the new assessment.
"A shutdown for cod is a shutdown for the fishery," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.
The results could become a driver for the congressional movement to write flexibility into the Magnuson-Stevens Act, she said.
The 1996 reauthorization included a mandate for 10-year rebuilding deadlines for overfished stocks. The Gulf of Maine Cod stock was put on a deadline for full restoration by 2014.
The 2008 benchmark assessment of all groundfish, while primarily made up of discouraging findings, gave Gulf of Maine cod optimistic expectations, and these were matched by fishermen's landings that suggested that the stock could be counted on even as the 2006 reauthorization included hard catch limits to insure the deadlines were met.
Fishermen were generally faced with fractional allocations of Gulf of Maine Cod.
A number of day boat fishermen over the past six months have reported to the Times that larger trip boats — sized, rigged and staffed to work the offshore waters of Georges Bank — had been making brief runs into the Gulf of Maine stocks of Stellwagen Bank on their way to and from the offshore zones.
But Odell said the dramatic reversal of the findings from 2008 and 2011 were difficult to reconcile.
Cadrin, who is on the faculty of School of Marine Science and Technology at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, said very large tows in 2007 and 2008 by the trawl survey vessel seemed to give an exaggeratedly optimistic gloss to the assessment.
The assessment team of several dozen people worked with annual trawl data and reported commercial and recreational landing and discard reports.
He said the assessment science was still largely guesswork. Among many assumptions he said NOAA scientists make, "We make assumptions that cod don't move in and out" and shift between Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine.
Based on the data and assumptions, he said, scientists then create models that can be useful to managing the fishery.
"The challenge," he said, "is to manage the fishery with imprecise science."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.