New England Fisheries

“The Fish Just Aren’t There.”

The cod ACL for 2013 needs to be reduced drastically to help cod stocks recover (Photo credit: Patrick Gijsbers, Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of EPA).

That’s what New England Fishery Management Council member Tom Dempsey told the AP when explaining the real reason behind the current crisis in New England’s groundfish fishery. At the meeting of the Science and Statistical Committee on January 23, the fishermen in attendance strongly agreed with this sentiment. Chatham longliner Peter Taylor, who has been fishing on Georges Bank since 1972, told the SSC about Georges Bank cod, “You should start using the word collapsed…this is bad, this is worse than what you guys think it is. [The catch] needs to be cut drastically if my children and my grandchildren are ever going to see codfish again on Georges Bank.”

There is no question that the expected reductions in annual catch limits (ACLs) will be difficult for an industry already in a declared disaster. But while these cuts for cod and haddock limits have grabbed headlines, the real story is that there simply aren’t enough fish. The science, the catch data and many fishermen say the populations of many important species are at or near all-time lows. Fishery regulators are eager to cushion the blow to those whose livelihoods are at risk. Unfortunately,  many proposals intended to help fishermen do not address the real problem—a lack of fish—and instead risk further harm to weakened fish populations.

This graph, derived from data from NOAA’s Northeastern Regional Office, shows fishermen are not able to catch the quota of fish they have been allotted, despite consistently high prices at the docks. Choke species like yellowtail flounder aren’t the problem, either. With eight months of the year-long season elapsed, fishermen had caught just 57.5% of their yellowtail quota in the Gulf of Maine and just 30.2% on Georges Bank.

This graph compares the current fishing year (through January 28) with data from the past two fishing years for select stocks of interest: Eastern and Western Georges Bank Cod and Gulf of Maine Cod. With 75% of the fishing year over, fishermen are not close to catching the same amounts caught in previous years.

This means that the expected reductions in legal catch limits for the 2013 season, while painful, won’t cut the real catch as much as might be expected in some cases. On Georges Bank, for example, a cut in the catch limit around the size of what’s recommended by scientists seems like a drastic cut. But it works out to roughly 15 percent more fish than the projected total for the 2012 season.

We must face the real problem, and that’s not really the reductions in ACLs. The real problem is the low number of cod and other fish populations.

And the Council, bluntly put, has not owned up to the root of the problem. The only responsible way forward is to follow the best scientific evidence available and set the 2013 annual catch limits at a level which reflect the real state of groundfish populations.  The shortsighted proposals to endorse continued overfishing and end crucial protection for groundfish nursery and habitat areas ignore the core problems with the New England fishery. Continued overfishing will cause irrevocable harm to fish stocks and will cause even greater damage to the industry than will the recommended ACLs. Allowing stocks to recover through science-based catch limits and protection of important habitat areas is the only way to ensure the long-term viability of commercial fishing in New England.


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