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.
No one knows exactly why the 2008 assessment was so far off the mark, but all evidence seems to suggest that the 2011 assessment is more robust and thus more accurate. Fisheries science is based on many assumptions – it uses data, modeling and estimates to try to assemble an accurate picture of how a species is faring. Short of draining the oceans and counting every single fish, the science used to manage each species and set catch limits will require some element of uncertainty. More frequent assessments would help address some of this uncertainty, but this requires resources that are scarce in these challenging economic times.
So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no way to create more fish in the Gulf of Maine, so any solution will require significant sacrifices by key stakeholders. It is clear that significant cuts in annual catch will likely be necessary, not only for the directed Gulf of Maine cod fishery but also in other groundfish fisheries that catch cod as bycatch.
Because the fish often are found together and the fishing methods make it difficult to select for only certain species, Gulf of Maine cod are caught when targeting fish like haddock, Atlantic halibut and yellowtail flounder. The catch reductions will likely have the greatest impact on many of the small-boat fishermen in New England who depend on Gulf of Maine cod as their primary source of income, particularly the heavy fishing communities of Gloucester, Massachusetts and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
An important marine species and the lifeblood of many Northeast fishing communities, Gulf of Maine cod must be given a chance to rebuild. A rebuilt stock would allow fishing for this iconic species well into the future, but only if we get the population healthy again.
NMFS must now work to find a solution that is within the law and minimizes, as much as possible, the impact on cod-dependent fishermen and their communities. This is no easy feat, but allowing the fishery to rebuild is the only way to ensure that the ecosystem – and those who depend on it – will be protected for future generations.
Beckie Zisser is an Ocean Advocate at Oceana.