Fisheries council okays drastic cuts in allowable New England cod catch
For over three hours Wednesday morning, the science behind sobering stock assessments for Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod were discussed by the New England Fisheries Management Council.
On Wednesday afternoon, they will be forced to set limits for those stocks that some New Hampshire fishermen have said will put them out of business.The Scientific and Statistical Committee of the NEFMC is recommending a catch limit of between 1,249 and 1,550 metric tons, representing a drastic reduction over last year's allotment of about 6,700 metric tons. The allotment the year before that was about 8,700 metric tons.
Although the NEFMC and members of the New England Congressional delegation have asked for interim measures to be taken to protect the fishery, John Bullard, regional director for NMFS, said there is no longer any wiggle room in the biology or the law.
Numbers presented Wednesday show a five-year linear decline in cod recruitment numbers, or the number of baby cod that are entering the fishery.
Bullard said it is unclear whether the consistent reduction in cod stocks has to do with overfishing or environmental changes.
New Hampshire fishermen and NEFMC voting member David Goethel said no one questions that there is a problem with the stock, but believes interim measures can be taken to both protect the fish and the fishermen.
He said the science on paper is trying to reach a threshold of cod population that has never existed in the history of recorded fishing.
"I am concerned that a lot of what is driving these decisions we're about to make today is trying to get to a number we may not be able to get to," Goethel said.
He said the cod fishery has also seen dynamic shifts before.
"The question that should be asked is what are the proper measures to impose to maintain some semblance of a fishery and sustain the resource," Goethel said.
Doug Grout, chief of the Marine Division of New Hampshire Fish & Game and a voting NEFMC member, said the most shocking aspect of the report to him was the recruitment numbers.
"That quite frankly scared me to death because what it's showing is five straight years of declining recruitment to the lowest levels in 30 years of the assessment, and that is not something that has been seen," Grout said. "It really is a very sobering piece of information that I saw in here."
Bullard said they have to acknowledge the possibility that the stocks may never rebuild, even if all fishing were to cease.
"We have to acknowledge the possibility that these stocks are so low and the stocks have so fundamentally shifted in terms of relative balance between predators and prey and other environmental factors that there certainly is the chance that we might get to a condition where you could stop all fishing and they would not rebuild," Bullard said.
NEFMC member Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said that was not comforting news to the members who have to make decisions on catch limits without knowing whether it will even help stocks.
The council meeting is scheduled to reconvene at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel in Portsmouth at 1:30 p.m. and continue until decisions are made.
If a decision is not reached today, Goethel said the fishery will not be able to open on May 1.