Sunday, September 6, 2015


Last year, we learned to our dismay that the Gulf of Maine cod stock was in even worse condition than previously believed, and had fallen to just 3 or 4 percent of the target level.

Last week, we learned that the Georges Bank stock is probably in even worse shape, with the population at just 1 to 3 percent of the abundance target. 

Those numbers have yet to pass the peer review process, so there is always the chance that they will not be accepted.  They also came out late in the week, and fishermen haven’t yet had time to react.  However, assuming that the data holds up to scientific review, we can be pretty sure that New England fishermen will be gearing up for a fight that puts past management battles to shame.

For this could be the year when their decades of intransigent battle against needed harvest reductions finally puts them out of business.

They can deny their role in the cod’s final collapse.  They can blame the politicians, they can blame the conservation community and they can blame the ocean for getting warmer.  But there is one thing that, as businessmen, they can’t deny:

If they want to have a codfishing industry, they have to have codfish to sell.

And right now, the fish just don’t seem to be there.  

According to the draft 2015 Assessment Update Report, the total biomass of the Georges Bank stock is, at best, 5,853 metric tons.  When all of the likely errors in the calculation are considered, that biomass estimate is reduced by about two-thirds, to a mere 1,906 metric tons.

To put that number in context, National Marine Fisheries Service data show that Atlantic cod landings peaked in 1980, when fishermen landed over 53,000 metric tons of cod.  NMFS recreational landings data doesn’t include information for 1980, but in 1981, recreational landings were estimated at over 8,000 metric tons, so it’s probably safe to assume that they were about the same in 1980. 

That’s more than 61,000 metric tons of cod landed in just one year--ten times the best-case estimate for the entire Georges Bank stock, and more than 30 times current size of the stock under the worst-case, and more likely, scenario. 

Yes, a lot of those 1980 fish came from the Gulf of Maine, not Georges Bank, but even so, no one is going to catch many fish when the Georges Bank biomass is less than 2,000 metric tons.

Yet, fishermen still try.  They don’t have much desire to cut back their efforts.  In 2014, the total landings from the Georges Bank stock alone were estimated to be slightly in excess of 2,000 metric tons—very possibly more than the total biomass that remains in the ocean.

“We think that this should have a positive impact on the future of the fishing industry, protecting valuable habitat while allowing for reasonable fishing opportunities.”
However, those areas were closed in the first place because they were seen as critical habitat, and in particular spawning habitat, for the cod.  A few fishermen on the Council understand their worth.  Reacting to the vote to reopen formerly closed areas, Council member Dave Preble, from Rhode Island, said

“This council has purposely ignored the science and produced an amendment that is indefensible.  If you want to have big fish, you have to feed and protect the small fish.”

The conservation community was even more emphatic about keeping the areas closed.  Gib Brogan, ho works on New England fisheries issues for Oceana, declared that

“The council put short-term profits ahead of the needs of depleted ground fish,”
while Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation said

“The council wrote off the future of critical fish habitat areas that needed additional, not future, protections.”
Now NMFS, and its regional administrator, John Bullard, hold the future of the Georges Bank cod fishery, and the Georges Bank cod stock itself, in its hands.

There is no more time to kick the can down the road, no room for a “compromise” that will keep fisheries open while the cod stock continues downhill.  With stock abundance, at best, just 3 percent of target, whatever margin of error that once may have existed is gone. 

The current level of fishing mortality, whether caused by fish landed or by dead discards, is far too high.  At best, it is nearly three times the overfishing threshold; accounting for all likely error, cod were removed from the stock at nearly ten times the permissible level.

Managers must finally accept the unpalatable truth that at current levels, it is probably not possible to allow any directed cod fishery and still reduce fishing mortality to just one-tenth of what it was in 2014.  

The tougher question for managers to decide—because it is so likely that the answer will be no—is whether it will be possible to allow ground-tending gear targeting other species in the Georges Bank region, and still keep fishing mortality for Georges Bank cod below the threshold.

Bycatch is real, and with the cod stock so badly overfished, it’s easy to imagine trawlers targeting haddock, redfish or flounder accidentally killing and dumping far too many cod.  

If NMFS is to fulfill its legal responsibility to prevent overfishing the Georges Bank stock, and have any hope of beginning that stock’s recovery, it may find itself not only rejecting the New England Council’s advice to open closed areas, but closing additional areas as well.

NMFS must realize that doing so could be the final nail in the coffin for much of the New England groundfishing fleet.  At the same time, failing to do so might well be the final nail in the coffin of Georges Bank cod.

NMFS may have to make the decision of whether the fleet, or the cod stock, is going to die.

If the time for that decision does come, NMFS should be guided by a simple reality.  If the fleet ultimately destroys the last of the Georges Bank cod, the fleet’s demise won’t trail the fish’s by very much time.

On the other hand, if the fleet must be sacrificed to protect the cod stock, there is a chance that with time and the stock’s recovery, both could thrive again.

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