Thursday, August 7, 2014


About a week ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center came out with a report that shocked just about everyone. 

After conducting an unscheduled assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock—the next assessment had been planned for 2015—biologists at the Science Center have determined that the cod stock has continued to decline, despite the massive harvest cuts imposed a couple of years ago.

Cod have been in bad straits for a while now, with the 2011 stock assessment finding the total abundance between 13% and 18% of the number needed for a healthy and sustainable stock.

That’s pretty bad.

But the most recent assessment—which has not yet been peer-reviewed—suggests that Gulf of Maine cod have fallen to 3%--maybe 4%--of sustainable levels.  And since that supposedly sustainable level is just 40% of the size of an unfished stock, the current population is probably less than 2% of what it was when John Cabot explored the coast around the year 1500.

That’s very bad.

Let’s put this in context.

When South Atlantic red snapper abundance fell to 3% of unfished levels, the folks at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council shut down the whole fishery.  Then they proposed closing all waters between 98 and 300 feet in depth, from North Carolina to Florida, to all bottom fishing—recreational and commercial—because red snapper bycatch alone would have risked overfishing the stock.  (A later assessment indicated that the snapper’s situation wasn’t quite so dire, so the closure never happened and a very small directed fishery actually reopened this summer.)

That’s for a fish at 3% of its potential abundance.

What do you do for a fish at less than 2% of its potential abundance?

After all, the only numbers smaller than 2% are one percent and zero

No other important fish stock in the United States has sunk so far, so the obvious question is:  Where will we go from here?

Predictably, one of the first reactions of the New England fishermen was to deny reality.  The bad news came out last Friday, and early this week, Vito Giacolone, the policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, was already telling the New England Fishery Management Council that

‘“This is BS”
He was pretty upset that the Science Center would actually show initiative and investigate the health of the stock without getting instructions from the Council, and told the assembled members that

“Nobody looked at what you wanted them to look at.  They looked at what they wanted to look at.“
That kind of attitude may help to explain how the stock got into bad shape in the first place…

Since the new assessment hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, it’s just possible that its critics are right, and Gulf of Maine cod are only severely overfished, and not teetering on the brink of commercial extinction.

But let’s be cautious for once, and consider the possibility that the folks from the Science Center are right.

Should the fishery be closed?

Pure logic says that it should be.  There aren’t many adult cod left, and very few young fish are recruiting into the stock, so it’s not clear where the next generation of spawners will come from. 

All indicators of abundance are at historic lows.

“I think our findings would lead to recommendations that we need to be very careful about subjecting the stock to any additional fishing mortality.”
When Newfoundland’s cod stock found itself in the same dismal place back in 1992, that fishery was shut down.  It has only recently begun to show some signs of rebuilding.  
Twenty years after that fishery was closed, abundance is just 10% of what it was in the 1980s, which was already well below where it was in Cabot’s time.

And there is no indication of when, or if, the Newfoundland fishery will ever open again.

So it appears that the New England fishermen have dug themselves a pretty deep hole.  The question now is whether—and how—they can climb out of it.

Just shutting down the cod fishery—a major step in itself—may not be enough.

New England groundfish comprise a “mixed-stock” fishery in which cod, haddock, various hakes and a plethora of flatfish species—along with some other creatures such as Acadian redfish—can sometimes all be caught in just a few tows of a net.  In such a situation, some cod bycatch is inevitable.

Given how low cod stocks seem to have fallen, could that bycatch alone be enough to doom a recovery?

If the answer is yes, can both the cod and the New England trawl fishery survive?  

Or must one be sacrificed if either is to endure into the next decade?

And if the latter proves true, which one are we more willing to lose?

Larger closed areas might give managers a chance to salvage both the cod and the groundfish fishery.  If the use of trawls—and all other gear that might catch a codfish—is banned in areas where cod reside, the stock might get a chance to rebuild, while allowing fishermen to still target scallops, lobster, redfish and anything else that might be caught without killing significant numbers of cod.  (Although they shouldn’t be permitted to switch effort to herring; they’re the cod’s preferred forage, and we want to have codfish, they have to be able to eat.)

Unfortunately, as fellow blogger Rip Cunningham noted a couple of weeks ago, fishermen have already convinced the New England Fishery Management Council to seriously consider opening the current closed areas, precisely because they host decent numbers of fish. 

Based on New England’s long history of mismanaging all of its fisheries, we have to wonder whether any semblance of rationality will prevail.

Will the fishermen finally admit the need to protect a dwindling resource, or will they engage in one last buffalo hunt?

Will they finally realize that their only chance at salvation lies in embracing the science and protecting the remnants of the fish that gave birth to New England?  Or will they seek the hollow promises of Doc Hastings’ “Empty Oceans Act,” and drive the cod, and probably themselves, into the hell of commercial extinction?

Only time will tell.

As a boy, I grew up in New England.  I hooked my first cod 54 years ago.  Since then, I’ve caught my share of fish, drained my share of beers in fishermen’s bars, and talked with my share of fishermen.

I’m no stranger to cod, or the people who catch them.

And so I harbor grave doubts about the futures of both.

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