GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 23, 2013

Cod cuts seen up to 86%

Fishing groups question dire new assessments

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Landings of inshore or Gulf of Maine cod, already cut by 22 percent for the 2012 fishing year that ends April 30, could be further reduced by between 76.8 percent and 82.6 percent starting in May and covering the next three years, according to an announcement made Tuesday by NOAA’s New England Regional Fishery Management Council.

Landings of offshore, or Georges Bank, cod were also projected to be reduced by 60 percent for the 2013 fishing year that begins May 1. The allowable catch of offshore cod has fallen by about 26 percent over the past two years.

The projected cuts in fishermen’s landing limits for the 2013 season come after a new assessment of Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks, which has not altered NOAA’s scientific opinion of the dire condition of the most essential target of Northeast groundfishermen.

Moreover, the council’s Groundfish Plan Development Team is advising the Science and Statistical Committee to reduce the “acceptable biological catch” on virtually every important fish in the mix of groundfish stocks on which the boats from Gloucester, New Bedford, Pt. Judith, R.I. and smaller ports from Maine to New York’s Long Island depend as primary source of landings.

The SSC meets today in Boston to set the acceptable biological catches for the 20 stocks in the mix of groundfish. Those figures form a calculation from which actual catch limits are derived. Then, a week from today, the full council is scheduled to set catch limits for 2013 based on the biological catch limits set by the SSC.

The discouraging data on cod was based on an extraordinary assessment of the stocks undertaken amid a crisis that threatens the survival of the Northeast groundfishery, which was declared an economic “disaster” by the acting commerce secretary last September based on socio-economic studies submitted by Gov. Deval Patrick in November 2011 and subsequently the governors of the other four coastal New England states and New York state. The 112th Congress ended Jan. 3 after deleting a $100 million fishery disaster aid provision from a $60 billion appropriation for Hurricane Sandy relief.

The findings leading to the projected cuts are already being questioned.

The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and the Associated Fisheries of Maine complained in a Jan. 4 joint letter to NOAA’s Northeast Science Center director that the cod assessment was potentially distorted by a decision against viewing the stocks’ history in a longer perspective — a decision the three organizations said was influenced by science center staff opposition to outside expertise.

NOAA Science Center Director William Karp defended his staff against the allegations by the organizations, which together represent a majority of the groundfishing industry.

But the letter of complaint to Karp said “comments and concerns presented by some New England Fishery Science Center staff late in the (assessment) process were the apparent basis of an important decision, but a quick analytical response that refuted the concern raised was considered to be too late in the process ...”

The coalition, the preservation fund and Associated Fisheries of Maine wrote that “the Stock Assessment Review Committee acted unreasonably and in a way that has seriously prejudiced the outcome (of the cod assessment).”

The Northeast Seafood Coalition has also argued that NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard has the authority to scale back the extreme cutbacks in Gulf of Maine cod landings by implementing a second year of interim emergency catch limits, and has called upon him to do so. Bullard, based at NOAA’s Northeast headquarters in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park, has not revealed whether he agrees with that interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The 22 percent reduction for the current year, however, traces to NOAA’s decision that the Magnuson law allows the agency to suspend stock rebuilding deadlines for limited periods.

“Based on recent reports developed by fisheries scientists and peer reviewed by independent experts, there is little good news about the health of cod stocks in the Northeast,” the New England Fishery Management Council said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. “The reports, developed during two separate stock assessments held in December and released last week, provide an update to the information received a year ago by fishery managers and fishermen alike about the poor condition of Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod.”

Spring and fall trawl survey data from 2012 was not factored into the new assessment, and the inshore surveys were among the worst ever recorded, so, if anything, the council release said, “the projections are likely to be optimistic.”

“The information in the report about Georges Bank cod was similarly negative,” the council’s statement indicated. “The last above average year class was 1991.”

Along with the cod stocks, haddock, yellowtail and other flatfish and pollock all were projected for lower acceptable biological catch limits in 2013 while redfish was projected for a higher ABC. The proposed ABC for hake has not been released.

The reality for the inshore and offshore cod stocks are likely worse than the assessments found, the Groundfish Plan Development Team noted.

With inshore cod, “experience has repeatedly demonstrated that projected stock size increases are often not realized,” and with Georges Bank cod, “there has been little progress in rebuilding” since 1994.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.