By Richard Gaines
A disappointing pace of the rebuilding of inshore cod stocks, which hit the fishing industry with a shock in a new assessment late last year, has now been extended to the offshore cod stock in Georges Bank, according to a new assessment of 13 stocks by the NOAA Science Center at Woods Hole.
The new bad news about Georges Bank cod is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now believes the biomass in the offshore waters is 46 percent smaller than the previous assessment estimated in 2008.
That assessment estimated the offshore cod biomass at 17,672 metric tons. The new assessment estimates the stock at 9,494 metric tons.
Based on the new estimates and modeling, NOAA dropped the hypothetical size of the rebuild stock from 148,084 metric tons to 140,424 metric tons.
"There is concern (about Georges Bank cod)," said Teri Frady, chief of research communications for the NOAA Science Center. "There has not been good recruitment, and there is low biomass."
The dramatic reduction in the "estimated" size of the Georges Bank stock emerged from a peer-reviewed process that used the same modeling as used previously, factoring in annual trawl survey data with catch reports.
The inshore cod crisis was triggered by a benchmark assessment of Gulf of Maine cod which found the biomass was about one third the size of the previous benchmark assessment in 2007.
Since late last year, NOAA administrators — along with Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and a crisis management team of government scientists and lawyers — have been working on an interim catch limit for inshore cod in response to the Gulf of Maine assessment that many see threatening fishermen's access to the entire cod fishery by 2013.
The inshore and offshore stocks are known to be integrated to some extent.
But the dramatic differences between the assessments and findings announced in 2008 and 2011 for Gulf of Maine cod have triggered a political-economic-legal crisis that has yet to be resolved.
The New England Fishery Management Council, an arm of NOAA, in early February ended two days of fevered debate on the problem with a compromise recommendation that Bryson take "interim action" and allow inshore cod fishing to continue with no more than a 22 percent cut in the catch limit for the 2012 fishing year which begins May 1.
Sam Rauch, the acting Undersecretary of Commerce for fishing, indicated a week later that the 22 percent cut was doable, but unless Congress takes action to override the Magnuson-Stevens Act for 2013, the new assessment would require a virtual halt to inshore cod fishing, the pivotal resource for Gloucester's and New England's commercial and recreational fishing industry.
Complicating the crisis is the lack of credibility that NOAA stock assessment science has gained since the 2010 inshore cod assessment so drastically contradicted the 2008 assessment.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, speaking at last Wednesday's national "Keep Fishermen Fishing" rally in Washington, D.C., described the assessment as "science that has no basis in scientific fact." He was not alone in complaining about assessments that swing wildly in their estimates.
Other than Georges Bank cod, however, the new assessment of 13 stocks by the NOAA Science Center found the groundfish ecosystem not dramatically changed from 2007, when the last benchmark assessment was conducted.
The new assessment covers stocks within the groundfish complex of 20 stocks that had not been recounted since the 2007 study, released in 2008 as the so-called GARM III report — for the third Groundfish Assessment Review Meeting.
"There are not a lot of changes in fish status," said research chief Frady. And some of the news is good because "the biomass is going up" for 8 of the 12 stocks that were benchmarked in 2008, but had not been considered again until this new assessment.
The status of the stocks remained unchanged except two: Gulf of Maine haddock has been reclassified as now subject to overfishing, while Southern New England windowpane flounder was removed from the list of stocks that had been subject to overfishing previously.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.