By Richard Gaines
New England's largest fishing industry group, the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, Tuesday cited the case of the disappearing codfish stock as a sign of "a flaw in fishery policy" that makes impossible demands on science in an effort to predict developments in the ocean ecosystem.
And it predicted that, without new flexibility written into it, the Magnuson-Stevens Act's rebuilding policy "is doomed to fail again and again."
On the eve of today's publication in Providence of a peer-reviewed assessment of the inshore cod population by the NOAA Science Center in Woods Hole, the seafood coalition urged the federal fishery management system to halt the normal process of setting what is expected to be an economically devastating catch limit on Gulf of Maine cod based on the pessimistic findings and a rigid legal deadline for restoring the stock to sustainability.
Instead, the coalition recommends that the Science and Statistical Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council, which hosts today's meeting, adopt an "interim catch level that achieves at least in the short term— one year — the overarching intent of Congress in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to strike a balance between ... achieving a sustainable resource and a sustainable fishery."
The new cod assessment dramatically contradicts the rosy picture painted only three years earlier for the wild stock on which the New England groundfishery industry most depends — and continues to report finding strong concentrations of cod in the expected places and far beyond.
The clash between the assessments and the empirical experience of fishermen underscore one of the underlying disputes about assessment methodology — NOAA's refusal to expand its assessment model to include what is known as CPUE — catch per unit effort — essentially government jargon for how easily a stock is caught.
The coalition, which represents hundreds of boats and shoreside businesses throughout the region, made its recommendations in a lengthy year-end memo to the New England congressional delegation that was abridged before submission to the Times for publication today (See page 5).
The new assessment, which concludes that the 2008 assessment overestimated the size of the spawning stock and total biomass by about 300 percent, would effectively shutdown the fishery if the findings were handled in routine fashion as mandated by the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
But with rising skepticism about the assessment's validity, President Obama's touting his economic recovery record, and top federal fishery officials already expecting a request for emergency action to mitigate economic hardships to fishermen who have followed the rules and fished within limits, routine handling of the assessment is not seen as likely.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, however, has shot down proposals from Sen. John Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick for a new assessment using independent scientists and fishermen to create trust in the results.
But in a Jan. 9 letter to Kerry, Lubchenco said that, for now, she would allow the normal process to unfold, recognizing that the new cod data "present an unusual set of circumstances which may require emergency management measures."
She deflected Kerry's reiterated request for a "disaster" declaration filed by the governor for the fishery before word of the cod assessment leaked out late last fall.
"We will continue to work with you, monitor this situation closely and leave all options for economic assistance on the table," she wrote.
What the government can do has been the topic of intense debate within NOAA and across the nation.
Rod Moore, a member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, and attorney Ray Bogan, who served as master of ceremonies at the 2010 United We Fish national rally in Washington, D.C., and will preside at the followup rally at the U.S. Capitol in March, wrote to the Times Tuesday that emergency actions such as those proposed by the coalition or suggested by NOAA leaders will not help much.
Moore and Bogan — along with the coalition — urged Congress to rewrite Magnuson to include flexibilities to obviate policies based on wild swings in the perceived measure of fish stocks — as the clashing assessments illustrate.
"From my perspective," Moore wrote for Brogan in an email to the Times, "solving a rebuilding problem for one fishing season doesn't address the basic arbitrary concept of a 10-year rebuilding ... ."
In the 3,000-word memo to the delegation, Odell and the seafood coalition took the same position.
"Because it is so narrowly constructed to achieve a predetermined biomass target in a predetermined, arbitrary number of years," the coalition wrote, "current Magnuson-Stevens rebuilding policy is doomed to fail again and again."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.