New England’s cod catastrophe


Melissa Wood, SeaFood Business assistant editor

Published on
February 2, 2012

Though an emergency measure may keep the New England groundfish fleet alive for 2012, the industry still faces an uncertain future in the wake of widely varying stock assessments, the ongoing controversy of its catch-share management system and possible drastic cuts in next year’s cod quota.

This week, the New England Fishery Management Council hoped to delay any drastic cuts by at least one year by requesting an emergency action that would allow an exemption from the requirement to end overfishing of Gulf of Maine cod. 

The action was taken after the release of a dire assessment for Gulf of Maine showing the stock was only at 20 percent of where it needed to be to be rebuilt by 2014 as required under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. According to NOAA Fisheries, that rebuilding goal for cod can’t be met — even if no cod are caught between now and then.

“The fishery service and I do not believe that this [assessment] is the fault of the council or the fishermen. It is the result of a change in scientific understanding,” said Sam Rauch, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries. 

Rauch who attended the 31 January council meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., said that a provision of the statute allows for a one-year interim measure that would reduce but not end overfishing. The council subsequently voted to request this emergency action, which NOAA has indicated it will approve, and asked for a catch limit between 6,700 and 7,500 metric tons for the 2012 season that begins May 1. If approved, the action cuts the catch by 12 to 20 from the 8,500 metric tons allowed in 2011.

“I think this is the first time we have ever used this provision,” pointed out Rauch. “I think that flexibility is necessary. I would be extremely difficult or impossible for the fishery to withstand such a dramatic drop.” 

But the authority to reduce overfishing is only available for one year, which could mean that those dramatic cuts are only a year away. And cuts in the cod quota also restrict fishing efforts on other groundfish like haddock because it is often caught as bycatch in those fisheries.

The scientific uncertainty influencing these cuts was particularly frustrating for those attending the meeting as the dire cod assessment was in sharp contrast to a 2008 assessment that showed Gulf Maine cod stock was undergoing a recovery. 

“The emergency and the crisis is that what is represented as the best available science to manage this fishery is nothing of the sort,” said Massachusetts state Sen. Bruce Tarr. “The crisis is on the desk of a scientist and in the computer of the National Marine Fishery Service.”

Fisherman Dan Shannon, who spoke in favor of a motion that would have kept the quota at 8,500 metric tons, blamed the dire assessment on the region’s controversial catch share management policy that allows fishermen to catch fish whenever and wherever they want — so long as they have the quota. “Just cutting the whole Gulf of Maine cod quota isn’t going to alleviate the pulse situation that’s gong on,” he said. 

He pointed out that when fishing productivity moves offshore, the smaller boats that can’t steam out to those areas are the ones that are left behind. 

Council member David Goethel, who argued against another proposal that would have set the quota at 6,000 metric tons, called the situation, “rats on a sinking ship syndrome.” Goethel said he would rather the quota be set as low as 1,900 metric tons.

“People make a calculation that I could survive at a certain number and they’re betting that the other rats will drown,” said Goethel. “Either we float everybody’s boats or we sink everybody’s boats. For once in our life let’s try to do the right thing. Six thousand tons, I know what that is. That floats a few boats and sinks the vast majority.”

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