, Gloucester, MA

March 25, 2013

Editorial: Influx of cod must spark feds to delay limit cuts

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The return of cod to nearby Stellwagen Bank, as documented by a number of area fishermen and by the findings through landings at Gloucester’s two waterfront auctions last week (see news story, Page 1) is certainly good news for Gloucester and other New England fishermen.

And it should mean a busy week ahead for those who have expected the great New England fish’s cyclical return before one of those infamous NOAA rolling closures essentially shuts down the fishery April 1.

But the influx of cod must be seen as bad news by those esteemed NOAA “scientists” and officials who, with the help of their closely-related environmental nonprofit spin doctors, have poured countless PR dollars and effort into spreading the false word that, indeed, the cod stocks are so diminished — especially from the Gulf of Maine — that we need to cut those fishermen’s 2013 quota by a job- and industry-killing 77 percent.

For the influx of cod — and just what fishermen have been expecting all along – raises significant red flags regarding the NOAA trawl surveys and stock assessments that, despite renewed and ongoing credibility questions, has led to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s and its New England Fishermen Management Council’s dire limits that are set to take hold May 1, just 5 1/2 weeks from today. And it cries out NOAA Northeast administrator John Bullard or higher Commerce officials in Washington to grant an extension — perhaps for a year, maybe even less — for the interim limits now in place, a step Bullard has declined to take.

This is, of course, hardly the first time that NOAA science has been show to be less than credible, if not absolutely worthless. We could start with the infamous Trawlgate debacle of 1999-2000, when NOAA’s trawl studies were carried out the wrong size nets, meaning targeted stocks could swim right through, creating a false perception that the stocks were down. Then came the surveys of 2009-2010, so skewed that NOAA officials had to “adjust” them by raising the fishery limit on pollock by a mere 600 percent.

Bullard himself has acknowledged that the agency’s data regarding the status of the yellowtail flounder — responsible for dire cuts in that stock as well — doesn’t add up, given credible reports he’s heard that the waters are teeming with from the waterfront. Yet he has stood by that the latest studies showing such a drop in Gulf of Maine cod that the 77 percent limit facing us all May 1 is necessary for rebuilding the stock.

At the very least, the influx of cod should give Bullard and the New England Council pause before they, agents of our own federal government, go ahead with steps that will leave countless fishermen and their families drowning in debt, facing foreclosure and other business and personal finance implications. And both Bullard and NOAA general counsel Lois Schiffer should revisit their bogus stand that fishing’s government Magnuson-Stevens Act does not include a specific provision allowing for the extension of the interim limits, so it’s not an option. The fact is, Magnuson does not preclude any such extension, meaning it is indeed allowed. And that’s the position taken by the New England council, by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and by congressional lawmakers who wrote the legislation.

But above all, this is no time for Bullard or other federal regulators to ignore what their and fishermen’s eyes are telling them; that the cod have once again been showing up in high numbers. And while everyone acknowledges that climate change has meant some shifting of the ocean waters and fishing grounds, it’s time to concede that the stock is not a victim of alleged “overfishing” by a fleet that has consistently played by NOAA’s oft-excessive rules and landing limits since at least 2004.

The cod that fishermen are seeing off Cape Ann and other parts of New England has raised dire questions about the data that NOAA has collected without any input from rank-and-file fishermen. And until this tone-deaf agency carries out cooperative research with the industry, its findings do not have the credibility the justify the limits that loom.

It’s time that Bullard and other NOAA officials revisited all of these issues, and extended the current cod and other limits — before it’s too late for the industry, and the communities and nation it serves.