New England's fishery management council committee holds an all-day meeting Wednesday in Providence to examine and debate a new, dire and skeptically received assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock.
Directly contradicting an assessment in 2008 — which found the most important wild resource of the New England groundfishery was recovering rapidly from chronic overfishing — the 2011 assessment concluded that the cod stock is so weak that nearly all fishing for it should be halted.
But the assessment, a product of the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole, has been received with doubts about its accuracy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's science itself has come under intense criticism.
In the furor, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Gov. Deval Patrick and the co-chairmen of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute have written to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and top Obama administration fisheries officials, advising them that a "new cod assessment, undertaken with industry and 'local scientific experts'" was essential to gain the "trust and support of fishermen."
But Lubchenco wrote back to Kerry on Jan. 9 that time constraints made it impossible to organize a new stock assessment in time to set catch limits for the 2012 fishing season that starts May 1.
"So we have to use science that we're all questioning to make drastic measures?" Laura Ramsden of New Bedford, an owner of the M. F. Foley Fish Co. and a member of the council asked at a subcommittee session last week.
How peer-reviewed stock assessments three years apart could be so far off has left scientists and fishermen shaking their heads and brought uncertainty to immediate and midrange cod catch limits and management policy.
The 2011 assessment estimated the spawning stock biomass in 2007 at 10,778 metric and total biomass at 17,757 metric tons. Both estimates are about one-third the size of the stock estimates in the 2008 Gulf of Maine stock assessment, which has been the foundation of catch limits that have not been violated.
"There is no reason to believe that the current information is any more reliable than the 2008 assessment. Both cannot be correct," said fisheries scientist Steve Cadrin, a member of the regional management council's Science and Statistical Committee, which hosts Wednesday's assessment meeting at the Hotel Providence, and a member of the faculty at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Cadrin, a former chairman of the Science and Statistical Committee, said he found many problems with the 2011 assessment that raises doubts in his mind that it was closer to right than the 2008 assessment.
"There are major uncertainties in the geographic stock definition, fishery monitoring data, survey calibrations, modeling assumptions, overfishing definitions and rebuilding targets," Cadrin said. "Some important sources of uncertainty are greater now than they were in 2008.
"For example," he continued, "there was no change in survey vessels that affected the 2008 assessment, and the estimate of recreational catch was more realistic in the 2008 assessment."
The trawl surveys done in advance of the 2008 assessment were all conducted by the NOAA research vessel Albatross IV, but the surveys done for the 2011 assessment were by Albatross and its successor, the Henry B. Bigelow.
Dimensionally, the boats differ, and industry experts who advised NOAA on the design of the trawl package for the Bigelow have been quoted as saying the boat and its trawl dimensions were mismatched.
Russell Brown of the NOAA Science Center discounted the concerns expressed by net designer Tor Bendiksen of Reidar's Manufacturing in Fairhaven and gear designer Bob Taber, of Trawlworks Inc. in Narragansett, R.I.
Cadrin also identified what he described as "weird" recreational catch reports, which figured into the pessimistic findings of the 2011 stock assessment.
"The estimate of catch from the recreational fishery in 2010 is unusually high for a few reasons," Cadrin said in a series of emails to the Times in response to a query.
"The recreational catch in 2010 is estimated to be greater than the commercial catch," he said. "About half of the recreational catch (a quarter of the total catch) is estimated to have come from two weeks in the spring of 2010. More than half of the recreational catch in 2010 is estimated to have come from private boats — not charter or party boats.
"These estimates are difficult to believe," Cardin added.
Brian Rothschild, Cadrin's colleague at UMass-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology, had a subtly different take on the clashing cod stock assessments. He said he was not ready to decide between the assessments, but he said it is the burden of the Science Center to explain how its work could be so contradictory.
Gene Martin, NOAA's chief regional counsel, offered preliminary advice to the regional council's Groundfish Committee meeting in Portland last week.
He that a very close reading of the Magnuson-Stevens Act gives the government some limited flexibility under emergency circumstances to allow overfishing to continue but only for "one year."
"At best, this is a short-term delay," Martin said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.