Thursday, November 13, 2014


The National Maine Fisheries Service has finally come out with emergency rules intended to protect what remains of the Gulf of Maine cod.

After looking at the rules and the reaction, it doesn’t seem that anyone involved has a firm grip on reality.

Let’s start with NMFS.

Faced with a situation in which the Gulf of Maine cod population has slipped to something like 3% of sustainable levels, the agency has, for the next six months, closed the recreational fishery, imposed a 200 pound trip limit on the commercial fishery and closed a number of fishing grounds that lie close to shore, where the fish are currently congregating.

“The Gulf of Maine cod stock, a historic icon of the New England fishery, is in the worst shape that we have seen in the 40 years that we have been monitoring it…”
But it’s also not enough.

Right now, NMFS estimates that the 2015 quota for Gulf of Maine cod will be between 200 and 386 metric tons.  Yet, knowing that such sharp cuts are needed, it left the 2014 quota of 1,550 metric tons intact, because

“The fishing industry urged us not to go in that direction because it would affect their business planning.”
It’s as if the agency hasn’t quite grasped the fact that the only way to rebuild the cod stock is to leave more fish in the ocean.  Allowing the 2014 quota to be killed—and, despite the small trip limit, worrying about  the industry’s “business planning” makes it pretty clear that NMFS wants the give fishermen a chance to kill the full quota—just digs the hole deeper and makes the stock that much harder to rebuild.

If you never lived or fished on the New England coast, you’d probably think that the fishermen would be grateful to get that much relief, but in the northeast, folks know better than that.

Fishermen are still claiming that

An editorial in the Gloucester Daily Times had the temerity to say, in condemning the new rules, that

It's especially troubling that Bullard chose to make these new ‘emergency’ measures effective today — before even running them through the New England Fishery Management Council, which supposedly has at least advisory clout over NOAA's fishery management. It doesn't, given that Bullard can simply impose any action with or without council approval.
Such criticism completely ignores the fact that the New England Fisheries Management Council, at its last meeting, voted to wash its hands of the matter and toss the whole hot potato into the federal regulators’ lap, implicitly recognizing that action had to be taken, but unwilling to make the hard choices needed to rebuild the cod stock.

The Gloucester Daily Times often takes scientifically unjustifiable pro-harvest positions, reflecting the sort of emphasis on short-term economic benefits that caused the cod stock to crash in the first place.  But this time, they really outdid themselves, again attacking the interim stock assessment not because the data is wrong, but because it was unscheduled (meaning that it forced remedial action instead of allowing a few more years of intense overfishing) and because fishermen weren’t allowed to provide input (and make an effort to impeach the data).

The fact that the fish is in deep trouble was not mentioned at all.

As Regional Administrator Bullard points out, things are bad enough now that the idea is

“to avoid the situation that Canada found itself in when its cod stock collapsed in the 1990s.”
The fishing community doesn’t see it that way.

We have tried everything to fix this problem with Gulf of Maine cod, and nothing seems to work.
Of course, that’s not completely true, because the one thing that they never tried—and actively resisted for years—was the one thing that might actually have stopped the decline in the stock.  They never imposed strict annual poundage quotas, and shut down the fishery as soon as the quotas were met, when there were still enough cod around for such measures to turn things around in a reasonable time.
By the time quotas were introduced as part of the catch share program, the cod population had already fallen to levels that will make rebuilding a very long and very painful process.

Ms. Raymond added

My gut reaction is we couldn’t be any worse off, either the resources or the people, if we had no management at all for the past 20 years
But the facts prove her wrong, for New England fishermen have diluted the effectiveness of management measures for so long—closer to 35 years rather than merely 20—that “no management” is effectively what they’ve had, and that clearly hasn’t been working.

So it is time.

It is time for fisheries managers and fishermen alike to take a firm grasp on reality, and understand one basic truth:  Gulf of Maine cod are in dire trouble.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if the stock assessment was a little off, and there are really twice as many cod in the water than the data suggests.  A stock at just 6% of sustainable levels isn’t much better off than one at a mere 3%, and quibbling over those sort of differences does no one good.

The fishermen, who fought tooth-and-nail to avoid regulation, the fisheries managers, who approved management plans with illusory measures such as days at sea rather than meaningful quotas and the politicians and members of the press who enabled the fishermen’s fantasies, encouraging them to believe that they could overfish the stock indefinitely with complete impunity, have combined to dig a very deep hole that the cod—and the fishermen—will not be able to escape for a very long time.

Fishermen must accept the reality that the old freewheeling days are gone.  Their most promising future is defined by closed seasons, closed areas and strict quotas.  Their alternative is a future where cod are commercially extinct.

Fisheries managers must accept the fact that, with the cod stock so low, business failures are going to happen.  Even with a shrinking fleet, there are too few fish to support all the boats, and it will be impossible to keep them all sailing.  They can adopt regulations that will conserve and rebuild the stock, and put a number of boats out of business, or they can try to keep everyone fishing, completely collapse the stock, and put every boat on the beach.

Politicians and press are going to have to learn to tell folks the unpleasant truth that, at this point, you can’t rebuild the stock without considerable pain—something that their constituents and readers just don’t want to hear--or continue to sell pipe dreams to fishing communities, that will ultimately lead them into complete ruination.

Will the right choices be made?

Right now, things look grim.

It may be that nothing short of a complete stock collapse, and a Newfoundland-like moratorium, will force fishermen, managers and everyone else to accept what is clearly reality.

But by then, of course, it will all be too late.

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