The federal government, and the fishing industry — the commercial and recreational sides alike, with deep dependence on inshore or Gulf of Maine cod — have entered uncharted waters found by NOAA to hold far fewer cod than anyone could have guessed just months ago.
Now, what to do about the cod crisis sits at the top of the agenda of the New England Regional Fishery Management Council this Wednesday afternoon in the middle of its three-day February meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.
Signaling the depth of the dilemma and joining the deliberations will be Sam D. Rauch III, the nation's acting assistant administrator for fisheries, "along with many of my key staff," Rauch announced at the end of a lengthy letter sent late last week to the council.
It was dated Thursday, the day after the dire results of a 2011 stock assessment was vetted by the council's independent Science and Statistical Committee meeting in Providence, R.I.
Despite much uncertainty about the correctness of the new assessment — it undercuts its 3-year-old predecessor assessment — Rauch outlined the limited legal options available, given the finding that the inshore cod stocks had been overfished and remain subject to overfishing.
A routine response to these findings could be a complete shutdown of the fishery, but even allowing 500 metric tons to be harvested would cost the ports of Gloucester and New Bedford as much as $170 million, according to economic modeling by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and data presented to the Science and Statistical Committee last week.
Rauch wrote that federa; Secretary of Commerce John Bryson was prepared to receive a request from the council to implement "an emergency or interim action" on cod that would "reduce" rather than "end overfishing." But he also emphasized that any "emergency/interim" plan would be required by law to "make a substantial reduction in overfishing and must, at a minimum, not further deteriorate the condition of the stock."