New England fishermen and conservationists alike are in a state of alarm over recent findings from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that Gulf of Maine cod – long a staple of New England waters and a critical species for thousands of commercial fishermen in Massachusetts and New Hampshire – are seriously depleted and have been heavily overfished for the past few years.
This news comes as a shock to both fishermen and scientists, since the previous assessment, done in 2008, found that the stock was following a positive trajectory toward recovery.
Under the most recent reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that governs the nation’s marine fisheries, the regional fishery management councils must implement measures to reverse overfishing and ensure that nearly all stocks are rebuilt within ten years.
Rebuilding fish stocks to healthy levels ensures that fish will be at robust levels to allow commercial fishing to continue on these stocks well into the future. For Gulf of Maine cod, the rebuilding deadline is 2014. The 2008 assessment indicated that the stock was well on its way toward meeting that deadline, so the New England Fishery Management Council set annual catch limits under that assumption and fishermen fished according to the law.
In a startling reversal, scientists have now determined that the picture in 2008 was flawed and the stock is nowhere near as healthy as they initially thought. In fact, they have found that the stock is only 20 percent of its rebuilt size and is being fished roughly five times the level it can sustain.
Even more troubling, scientists say that even if all fishing of cod ceased, the species will still not recover by the 2014 deadline. NMFS has said that even under the best case scenario, the stock would not be rebuilt until 2018. The assessment is currently under peer review and the results will be released later this month.