By Richard Gaines
Gulf of Maine cod, the lifeblood of the inshore fishing fleet centered around Gloucester, appears to have undergone a dramatic and inexplicable decline in recent years, according to an authoritative marine scientist on the NOAA Science Center team.
Steven Cadrin, a member of the regional fishery management council's Scientific and Statistical Committee team, told the Times Thursday that the assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, which is preliminary and subject to peer reviewing, points to a finding that even a complete ban on landings would not allow the iconic stock to rebuild fully by the April 2014 deadline in the management plan.
"The stock can't meet the rebuilding deadline with no fishing," said Cadrin, an associate professor of oceanography at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology.
The time needed for completing the assessment, getting it peer reviewed, and then processing the results to reach a recommended adjustment in the rebuilding plan will push the issue into 2012 — an election year — and may set off a potentially fierce battle in an ongoing struggle between conservation and community preservation interests.
That pending struggle between hard-line conservation interests allied with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and fishing communities with their state and federal legislative backers was described by state Sen. Bruce Tarr as an "Armageddon" scenario just as the presidential and U.S. Senate election cycle gets underway.
End of the line?
For the inshore day boats from Maine to Cape Cod — already facing an uphill struggle to survive with the bigger boats and better capitalized businesses under Lubchenco's and NOAA's catch share management system — access to cod is considered an essential for survival.
Without cod, said Richard Burgess, who owns and operates four Gloucester day boats, "The business of the small boat fleet will come to an end as we know it."
Because of the intermingling of the different groundfish stocks, said marine attorney Stephen Ouellette, a ban on cod fishing "would effectively mean you can't catch anything else."
"The primary money fish in the Gulf of Maine is cod," he said.
Gulf of Maine cod landings last year sold for $16 million at the docks, and produced five to six times that amount in immediate economic benefit to the landing ports, based on a rule of thumb multiplier, according to research by NOAA.
A NOAA Science Center study of the social and economic changes in the groundfishery in 2010, its first year as a commodities market trading in catch shares, found that no shares of any stock were more valued and desired than Gulf of Maine Cod, and nearly 4 million pounds of the stock were traded at prices ranging from $1.14 per pound to $1.20 per pound.
Science-based disputes clashes have defined the Obama administration's fisheries policy nearly from the moment the new president put Lubchenco, an officer of Environmental Defense Fund and an advocate of reduced or prohibited fishing in marine protected areas, in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in early 2009.
The agency and its regional fishery management arm are allowed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to extend rebuilding deadlines when even a ban on fishing can't achieve the restoration of an over fished stock within the 10 years allowed by the law, according to Rip Cunningham, who chairs the regional council for NOAA.
But the dire news of the incomplete assessment passed as rumor throughout the region in the days after the Science Center's Stock Assessment Workshop in Falmouth, which ran from Oct. 17 through 21.
Even Cunningham, when contacted Thursday, said he had only heard "rumors" of the findings. No transcript of recording was made.
"There was a working group meeting last week where initial modeling runs were done," said NOAA Science Center spokeswoman Teri Frady in an email. "That's probably what you're hearing about. No final results yet, but very little good news for Gulf of Maine Cod at that meeting."
Already, the unofficial assessment has cast a cloud over the previous one, and added energy to the undercurrent of doubt about the capacity of NOAA to conduct science solid enough to serve as the foundation for industry — and community — altering findings.
Conflicting NOAA data
The new assessment, if confirmed by peer review, would fly in the face of a 2008 benchmark assessment, known as GARM III, of the entire complex of groundfish, and raise fateful questions about the quality of government science and policies.
The third Groundfish Assessment Review Meeting findings in August 2008 on which were based the current rebuilding plans for all 20 stocks in the complex, was lauded by NOAA as the gold standard of fishery science.
A bright exception to GARM III's generally discouraging findings about the health of the fishery was apparent progress made in rebuilding the Gulf of Maine cod stocks.
"Eleven of the stocks are now both overfished and experiencing overfishing, compared to seven in 2004 (the date of GARM II), the NOAA Science Center wrote in the benchmark study, "Pollock, witch flounder, Georges Bank winter flounder, Gulf of Maine winter flounder and northern windowpane have deteriorated ins status, while Gulf of Maine Cod has improved.
"This latter stock, while still experiencing overfishing, is no longer overfished," the assessment team reported.
Three years later, the ongoing new assessment has found that inshore cod is now overfished again, meaning the size and complexity of the stock has fallen below optimal scale.
"The problem here," said Ouellette, is "we're 7 1/2 years into a rebuilding plan that was going well and now we're horribly off, and we can't meet the deadline."
"The biggest question is: How can a stock on a rebuilding trajectory be now in collapse," said Tarr.
The news out of the assessment workshop arrived as the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick was rushing to complete and send to Lubchenco a set of studies that are intended to provide the proof required by top commerce and fisheries officials to declare that their policies have brought a economic disaster to the state.
Then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke rejected the initial submission and pitch for a disaster declaration, but — under pressure from the Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, and Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank — Lubchenco has agreed to fast track the next submission.
In the meantime, with calls for her dismissal from Democrats and Republicans alike, Lubchenco has been announcing a series of concessions to policy adjustments suggested by Kerry.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.