">Georges Bank cod populations, already a tiny fraction of sustainable levels, have declined by 25 percent from 2001 to 2004, a drop revealed by federal scientists during their first update on the 2002 cod stock assessment. This news has prompted Oceana to once again urge the federal government to protect cod nursery grounds and stop overfishing.
In their stock assessment, discussed during a workshop on Monday, scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the New England Fishery Management Council, and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center found that the lack of strong recruitment of juvenile cod in the last decade suggests that the key causes of this sharp decline are the continued commercial overfishing of adult cod, and the continued failure of significant numbers of juvenile cod to survive to adulthood.
“The slightly higher number of juvenile cod found in the 2003 class is a mere blip on a longstanding trend of low juvenile cod populations,” said Chris Zeman, Oceana’s Northeast Fisheries Program Counsel. “The survival of the juvenile cod born in the last couple of years will determine cod fishermen’s future. The council can’t ignore this new assessment – they must act to protect juvenile cod habitat and stop overfishing to help New England cod populations recover.”
Scientists have shown that juvenile cod require complex rocky habitats with abundant animal and plant life, both for food and shelter from predators. They have also documented that dragging nets and dredges across the seafloor causes long-term damage to these habitats and significantly reduces their value to juvenile cod. As a result, too few baby cod survive to adulthood to replace the adults killed by fishing or other means, and the population declines.
“If New England wants to continue fishing for cod in the future, historically important cod nursery grounds need to be protected now,” said Zeman. “Oceana has worked with fishermen and scientists to identify these nursery grounds off Cape Cod and southern New England, as well as on Georges Bank, and called on the council to protect these areas for the juvenile cod.”
Oceana’s proposal for protecting cod nursery grounds has received strong support from the New England council’s habitat scientists. The proposal is under review by the New England council’s Habitat Committee and will be considered at its Aug. 22 meeting in Portland, Maine. If approved, the alternative will be developed as an alternative in the Council’s Omnibus EFH Amendment II, slated for final approval in late 2007.
From 2001 to 2004, U.S. landings of Georges Bank cod are down 67 percent. Cod fishermen are now catching the large fish from 1998 and 1999; when those fish are gone, there won’t be enough juvenile cod to replenish the adults. “The key way to protect the juvenile cod is to reduce bycatch and protect their habitat,” said Zeman. “If New England wants to continue fishing in the future it needs to protect cod now—not wait until 2007."