New England Fisheries
Peter Shelley to NEFMC: Shut Down New England Cod Fishery
Last Wednesday, January 30, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to cut catch limits for New England’s cod stocks by 61-77% from their 2012 levels. Conservation Law Foundation Senior Counsel Peter Shelley made this unplanned statement to the Council urging cautious management and asking them to consider shutting down the New England cod fishery so stocks can recover. Listen to audio of the entire meeting here.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Peter Shelley, Conservation Law Foundation. The Council has received advice from the peer-reviewed SAW/SARC group, its own PDT, and its own SSC that indicates what Mr. Bullard said. There’s no biological wiggle room left. This is your best available science and this is what these motions have to be based on. Moreover, the science you’ve gotten comes with a history, which you all know, of consistently overestimating the biomass and underestimating the F that shows up in the real world. Furthermore, the science that you received does not include the 2012 trawl surveys— either the federal or the state survey—which were the lowest, I believe, in each time series. So there is no biological hope on the horizon.
I think everyone in the room recognizes that whatever the Council does today, jobs and infrastructure are going to be lost. It is unfortunate, as David Pierce and others have repeatedly said and we’ve said, that we don’t know exactly who is going to bear those losses. Our social science data is so poor that we can’t distinguish the people who will get through this and those who won’t, but there will be job and infrastructure losses; there’s no question. And that’s a terrible result. But I think, for the Council and its deliberations, a worse result—a far worse result—would be failing to take the kind of action at this session that would secure the possibility of a future for this fishery.
This Council, despite some of the efforts to rewrite history, from my perspective has never been precautionary. In the early days the courts had to stop overfishing. Since then, the catch levels have always been set at the maximum rebuilding period that was allowed under the law. The probability of rebuilding success of the quotas you set were always at the minimum that the law allowed; in most cases, a coin toss—a 50 percent chance. The Council has, for perhaps very understandable reasons, always leaned toward short-term economic interests and social interests over the long-term future of the fishery. And many argue that the National Standard 8 requirement to protect communities continues to be violated by these management plans. I would argue that when you look at the loss of fishing communities, the loss of fishing operations, the loss of crew positions, the loss of economic activity that’s happened since I first got involved in 1990, the real failure of National Standard 8 is for this council not to have taken effective action to manage the stocks sustainably over time.
More troubling is the scope of the problem we’re facing. There’s a new term that’s been put in some of the documents. We’re not talking anymore about growth overfishing or recruitment overfishing. In the 2009 analysis of the northeast fisheries by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a new term that’s not even in the definitions that get handed out was used, which is “ecosystem overfishing.” We have been pushing this system beyond its ability to reproduce for many, many decades. And, except for a few fisheries like scallops—and I have to say that most of the management, in my opinion, for scallops has come from the industry itself, not any particular initiative that the Council has brought forward—many of the fisheries are at risk because of the failure to manage for the long term.
Turning to these particular motions, I would suggest that this problem, even though I’ve harped on the last twenty years, has been coming for a long time—maybe a hundred years or more in the making. But the council doesn’t have a hundred years to solve it if it wants to preserve these fisheries and any of this infrastructure. It doesn’t have ten years. It has to start acting immediately. We agree with the approach that the PDT has recommended to you to be most confident about the near-term projections and least confident about even year two and three. That’s completely consistent with the science advice you’re getting. As far as Gulf of Maine cod, we’re talking about a difference between 1550 metric tons and 1250 metric tons. I can’t see what difference that really makes. It’s not going to float a single boat operation that’s dependent on those fish. All it’s going to do is drive the risks up higher.
Codfish are collapsing. I tried to find out exactly at what point Canada closed its southern cod fishery, and I didn’t get exact numbers, but it was about when the spawning stock biomass in Southern Canada was a third of the average spawning stock biomass between ’62 and ’92. I don’t know how that compares to our spawning stock biomass, but we’re talking about estimates, perhaps overoptimistic—probably overoptimistic—that are seven percent, and then thirteen to eighteen percent. We are in the tank with cod.
My thinking on these motions—you should be talking about closing the fishery. You should be talking about it. It is a real option. You should be talking about closing it to everybody. You are in a crisis. You have to hedge this and get rid of the crisis. It may even beneficially impact your ability to get some federal aid if you close this fishery. Many of us have supported the federal aid; we’re very disappointed that our delegation wasn’t more effective, but we can continue to push on that. You should definitely be talking about expanding closed areas, particularly the ones where you know from the GIS work that cod populations are congregating. That’s where your productivity is. That’s where your recruitment may come from. That’s where the future of not just the cod fishery but all the other fisheries that are commingled with cod—that’s where they are. You should be increasing protection of those areas. You should be keeping fishing activity out of those areas. I don’t care if it’s recreational or commercial; you should be cutting down mortality however you can. And you should be focusing on increasing harvests on skates and dogfish and some of the other predators that you have an ability to manage and reducing the mortality associated with some of them.
Finally, I think the thing that we’re all left with is that we all just have to cross our fingers, really, and hope that we’re not well past the point that Canada got to where they took too little action too late and have had a shut down fishery for thirty years. Thank you.