By Richard Gaines
---- — Citing widespread evidence of an abundance of important commercial in shore fish stocks — and a scientific study that found flaws in the modeling methods used by the government to set catch limits — a contingent of state lawmakers led by Senate President Therese Murray is urging NOAA’s top fisheries official to delay dire cuts planned for May 1 and allow the fleet reasonable access to stocks while new studies are conducted into the vitality of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, both of Gloucester, were among the 24 signers of a letter sent Monday and released to the Times Tuesday addressed to Samuel D. Rauch III, the acting administer of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The lawmakers emphasized to Rauch that a compelling legal case exists for the government to institute a second year of interim catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod, now in line for a 77 percent cut in landings based on a decision by Regional Administrator John Bullard and supported by a legal brief by the general counsel for NOAA that has been withheld from the public.
A delegation from Congress, the New England Fisheries Regional Council and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition have all argued to Bullard in writing that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows a second year of interim measures which would reduce but not eliminate overfishing,
The council is an arm of NOAA, comprised of 17 members. The coalition is the region’s largest industry group, representing about two thirds of the commercial fishing businesses, boats and shore-side.
Behind the letter, the authors wrote, is evidence in data supplied by the NOAA Fisheries Social Science Branch, reported by the Times in recent days, as well as reports by Gloucester’s two major auction houses of a “notable concentrations” of cod on Stellwagen Bank and “plentiful yellowtail flounder” landed by boats from Gloucester’s inshore fleet.
In addition, the state lawmakers cited a report published in January by scientists at the University of Washington that “documented that the current abundance modeling methods used to establish catch limits are ineffective at maximizing sustainable harvests.
“The report indicates that reaching the abundance levels developed by current models fails to effective cause maximum sustainable yield for 82 percent of the stocks examined.”
Murray, Tarr, Ferrante and their colleagues wrote that “in the context of large and growing discrepancies between stock assessments and the abundance reflected in harvester observations and landings and the pervasive inaccuracies documented by the University of Washington, the impending irreparable damage that would be caused by planned reductions in catch limits on species such as Gulf of Maine cod is unwarranted and indefensible.”
The letter asks Rauch to suspend the impending 77 percent cut in landings of in shore cod, implement an interim action to reduce but not end overfishing of cod and haddock from inshore waters, complete an interim stock assessment to reconcile current observations with government assessments and develop new limits on landings based on the scientific observations.
Bullard has not taken official action to adopt the recommendations of the council on catch limits for the coming fishing year.
The 77 percent cut in cod landings and a drastic cut in landings of yellowtail flounder, along with range of reductions on the mix of groundfish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, would go into effect May 1 under existing plans and are widely believed to immobilize if not decimate, the fishing industry based around Gloucester and New Bedford.
Bullard has said he, too, has doubts about the stock assessment of yellowtail, but believes the inshore cod to be depleted and that the 77 percent cut in landings is warranted.
The reduced allowable catch would likely end a directed cod fishery and possibly bar boats from fishing due to the risk of hauling up excessive quantities of cod through bycatch that would bring penalties from the government.
The Times has reported that fishermen have found a modest influx of cod and an abundance of yellowtail on Stellwagen Bank, not far from Gloucester.
In an interview last week, Joe Orlando, on a one day fishing trip to Stellwagen, said he found the waters teeming with yellowtail, the landings of which would be cut by 53 percent based on the vote of the council in January predicated on updated stock assessments.
The NOAA Science Center reported landings of cod in excess of 20,000 pounds a day on five days during February and early March, but the reports were not of a profusion of cod as were the reports about the surprising concentration of yellowtail.
The letter highlighted the findings of the study, “The frequency and intensity of productivity regime shifts in marine fish stocks “ published at the University of Washington.
“The report indicates that reaching the abundance levels developed by current models fails to effectively cause maximum sustainable yields for 82 percent of the stocks examined,” the lawmakers’ letter noted. “Thus, the industry is being subjected to possible financial ruin for scientific methods that have a roughly 18 percent chance of success. The report also concludes that potential fish harvests are either random or controlled more by irregular shifts in environmental conditions than abundance or shifts in environmental patterns.”
Signing the letter along with Senate President Murray, whose hometown Plymouth and district feature commercial fishing business in the ports, and Tarr and Ferrante from Gloucester, the nation’s oldest port, were: Sens. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth, Richard Ross of Wrentham, Kathleen O’Connor Ives of Newburyport, Joan Lovely of Salem, John Keenan of Quincy and Michael Moore of Shrewsbury.
Representatives signing the letter to Rauch were: Geoff Diehl of Whitman, Anne Gobi of Spencer, Robert Koczera of New Bedford, Steven Howitt of Seekonk, Susan Gifford of Wareham, Garrett Bradley of Hingham and Rhonda Nyman of Hanover.
Also signing were Reps. Denise Garlick of Needham, Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, James Dwyer of Woburn, Antonio F.D. Cabral of New Bedford, Christopher Markey of Dartmouth, Matthew Beaton of Shrewsbury and Randy Hunt of East Sandwich.
Other signers include Reps. James Cantwell of Plymouth, Angelo D’Emilia of Bridgewater, Paul Schmid of Westport, Kimberly Ferguson of Holden, Jerry Parisella of Beverly, John D. Keenan of Salem, Bradford Hill of Ipswich, Theodore C. Speliotis of Danvers, Keiko Orral of Lakeville and Tackey Chan of Quincy.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.