We are excited about two big wins this week for the future of fish in New England.
The first is a major legal victory that establishes the first full count, cap, and control fishery in the Northeast. This lawsuit settlement means that the New England groundfish fishery, which catches Atlantic cod, haddock and flounder, among others, must strictly account for how much fish it’s catching and discarding. Groundfish have been severely overfished, and this new ruling is an important step in establishing more sustainable fishing practices in the region.
Oceana has been campaigning for years to establish science-based monitoring of this historically overfished region of the U.S. Oceana won a legal victory in 2010 when a federal court ruled that the fishery must demonstrate that discards would be accurately counted, but when it soon became clear that discards would not be adequately monitored, Oceana brought a new lawsuit in 2012.
Secondly, we’re applauding a new set of significantly reduced annual catch limits for two stocks of Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.
While all stocks of Atlantic cod have been overfished to alarming levels, the cod populations in these two areas have dropped to dire levels – an assessment earlier this year showed that after 15 years of trying to rebuild these two cod populations, virtually zero progress had been made.
The Gulf of Maine cod population is currently at less than 19 percent of its target level, while the Georges Bank cod population is at 7 percent. The new limits will reduce catches in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank by 77 percent and 55 percent, respectively, in a last-ditch effort to save these populations.
The fishing of groundfish like Atlantic cod is historic, older even than America itself. Atlantic cod has been harvested by U.S. fishermen since the 17th century, and the ocean was believed to be so teeming with cod that one could almost walk across the ocean on their backs.
As is often the case, however, fishing turned into overfishing, with U.S. stocks of Atlantic cod coming dangerously near to commercial collapse in the mid-1990s. Concerted efforts to replenish cod stocks began, but to little avail – a 2011 assessment of Gulf of Maine cod showed that the fish was still being seriously overfished, and was not recovering at an adequate rate.
Unfortunately, this disappointing story is not unique to Atlantic cod; today, 14 of 20 groundfish populations in New England are overfished or experiencing overfishing, making these victories that much more critical for the future of these populations.
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.