Conservation group demands ban on cod fishing

File photo/ the Conservation Law Foundation is pushing the U.S. Commerce Department and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to ban commercial and recreational Atlantic cod fishing until the populations are "out of crisis." 

The Conservation Law Foundation on Thursday urged NOAA Fisheries to implement emergency measures to ban all recreational and commercial fishing for Atlantic cod and institute contingencies for large area closures until the beleaguered fishery is rebuilt.

In a formal petition delivered Thursday to the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office in Gloucester and the Washington office of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the CLF said cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank remain overfished and with overfishing still occurring. It laid the blame directly at the feet of NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council.

"According to the most recent stock assessment, not only are both Atlantic cod stocks — Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod — overfished with overfishing still occurring, but the current scientific understanding reveals that they have been subject to overfishing for decades and all attempts to rebuild the stocks as required by law have failed," CLF said in its petition. "The best scientific information available shows that GOM cod has been subject to overfishing since 1982 and overfished in all but two years. Georges Bank cod fares no better."

The CLF petition also seeks 100% at-sea monitoring aboard all commercial groundfish trips. It said the prohibition on directed commercial and recreational fishing for Atlantic cod would include large area closures once the groundfish fleet hit its cod bycatch limit.

It implied the impact on the Northeast multispecies groundfish fleet would be at least partially offset by prioritizing bycatch allocations to commercial groundfish vessels and by ensuring bycatch "during the closure of the directed fishery will not count towards future potential sector contributions."

Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said the petition further reflects the problems with the science currently used in the stock assessments used to develop catch limits.

"We need a more productive discussion about what we're missing in the science used in the stock assessments to really reconcile what our guys are seeing on the water with what the assessments are saying," Odell said. "That is something we've been working on for some time and we would love to have CLF join us at the table."

The CLF petition seeks "area closures to protect all identified Atlantic cod spawning locations and favorable habitat for juvenile and adult cod," as well as groundfish gear modifications to reduce cod bycatch. It also calls for "additional measures in the recreational fisheries" to further reduce Atlantic cod catch.

"These measures are intended to reduce catch of Atlantic cod, improve productivity and increase recruitment by restoring a normalized age-structure to the population, increasing spawning success of adult cod and increasing the survival and growth of juvenile cod," CLF stated in its petition.

The New England Fishery Management Council recently approved measures that would reduce the allowable catch of Georges Bank cod by 32% and the allowable catch of Gulf of Maine cod by 24%. NOAA Fisheries is still reviewing the proposed measures.

But clearly the CLF doesn't believe those measures go nearly far enough.

It accused the council of deferring to "short-term economic interests" and ignoring scientific concerns in its rule making. It charged the council has set catch limits using inaccurate catch data and "an arbitrary control rule process that does not reliably end overfishing." It also said the council relies on "overly optimistic interpretations of stock assessment models" that underestimate fishing mortality and overestimate stock biomass.

"As the legally responsible party, (NOAA Fisheries) has repeatedly approved the council's risk-prone recommendations, notwithstanding the failure of these conservation and management measures to achieve core statuary objectives," the CLF stated in its petition. "Making matters worse, (NOAA Fisheries) has neither adequately monitored the fishery (leading to unlawful discarding and unreliable catch data), protected necessary habitat (diminishing the species's ability to rebuild), not accounted for the impacts of climate change."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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