By Richard Gaines
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A statutory need to address a reported widespread decline in the status of the Gulf of Maine cod was translated Wednesday into terms of a potential economic catastrophe for the New England groundfishing industry — with projections of dealing a $70 million hit to Gloucester's economy alone.
The venue was a day-long meeting of the Science and Statistical Committee for the New England Fishery Management Council, which took the extraordinary step of not endorsing the findings of the peer reviewed assessment.
That move avoided triggering the legal process of setting draconian catch limits on the most essential food fish for Gloucester's and region's groundfishing fleet.
Because of continuing and new doubts about the accuracy of the new assessment — a blunt repudiation of an optimistic assessment only three years ago — a discussion of the what the medicine might be prescribed was left for federal regional management council and higherups in the Obama administration.
But the Social Sciences branch of the NOAA Science Center weighed in for the first time Wednesday. And NOAA scientist Chad Demarest presented output from a model created to replicate economic implications of severe cutbacks in cod allocations.
His model showed that, if cod catches were reduced to 500 metric tons from the roughly 7,700 tons caught in 2010, Massachusetts ex-vessel (at the dock) revenues would decline by $57 million.
He described that cut later as "overly pessimistic." But such a decline, due to the multiplier for processing, handling, fueling, icing and shipping would approximate $200 million overall, he reported..
Gloucester alone would suffer ex-vessel losses of approximately $18 million — or, after the multiplier, close to a $70 million hit on the city's economy.
New Bedford, meanwhile, would see $25 million vanish in ex-vessel income vanish, with nearly $100 million lost within the New Bedford economy.
Proportionally, Gloucester's losses from 2010 revenues would be 31 percent compared to New Bedford's 28 percent.
The impacts, though theoretical at this point, were projected also to traumatize the fleet's diversity and send cod catch share prices spiraling upward to unheard-of levels, Demarest said, increasing, based on his projections, close to $4 a pound.
Demarest's modeling showed there would be a demand for $6.6 million in cod catch share stocks with $352,000 in circulation.
Les Kaufman, an ecologist at Boston University and a member of the Science and Statistical Committee, said he wondered what would be left of the fleet.
In the hours before the economic modeling, new doubts were raised about the accuracy of the new and discouraging benchmark assessment of efforts to restore to sustainability the essential commercial food fish for the New England groundfishing industry, Gulf of Maine cod.
Among the problems raised with the assessment was its refusal to consider that cod move in and out from the inshore waters to the Scotian Shelf and to Georges Bank and its decision to ignore what scientists call "CPUE" or "catch per unit effort" — essentially documenting how easily and quickly fishermen land their catch.
Skepticism about the assessment has been fueled by strong "catch per unit": observations — though Wednesday brought NOAA discussion that in times of stress, the fish might congregate in the most hospitable locations, just where the fishermen knew they'd be.
Yet the day-long meeting also brought allusions to unpublished spring and fall surveys of cod in state waters from last year — giving credence to the new data to the same NOAA Science Center that, just three years earlier, deemed the Gulf of Maine cod roaring back in its recovery from a weakened state.
The committee avoided the normal act of validating the assessment — a step that would have triggered draconian cutbacks in catch levels for fishing year 2012. Instead, the panel kicked the hot potato up to the parent council, which operates as an arm of NOAA, to ponder how much trust to put in the assessment,.
The full council has scheduled a day's debate on the cod crisis for next Wednesday during a three-day meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., but discussion here took it as a given that the council will request "emergency" action by Commerce Secretary John Bryson.
Bryson is said to have some limited authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to allow potential "overfishing" to continue for a year while a revised plan could be crafted to end it in 2013.
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.