New England Fisheries

Lost in the Fog

Image via NOAA.

A fishery management control rule is “a specified approach to setting the [acceptable biological catch—ABC] for a … stock complex as a function of the scientific uncertainty in the estimate of [the overfishing limit], and any other scientific uncertainty” under the NMFS Guidelines.  In simple terms, a scientific procedure for setting catch based on biological science.

Perhaps that explains why I was having a bit of an out-of-the-body experience last week when the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) re-thought setting the Acceptable BIOLOGICAL Catch (ABC) for the collapsed Gulf of Maine cod stock. Most of the debate was driven by economic issues, not biological issues. The discussion was focused mainly on identifying the various estimated economic impacts associated with various ABC levels. There was surprisingly little said about whether any catch of the collapsed cod population was acceptable.

The SSC had earlier set a “provisional” ABC of 200 metric tons (mt), a spectacular drop of some 85% from the current fishing year ABC, which itself was a major drop of the prior ABC. Spectacular, but likely not keeping pace with the even more spectacular collapse of inshore cod populations under continued pressures from overfishing coupled with potential climate change-related reductions in productivity. To reach a “final” ABC, the SSC asked the fishing industry for some estimates of the minimum amount of cod bycatch they could live with while pursuing other fisheries and avoiding cod.

The resulting analysis of potential economic impacts and sector bycatch reports considered by the SSC at its meeting had none of the independent scientific workup or “peer review” that is demanded of the biological assessments. More troubling, there is no question that the economic information presented to the SSC was entirely inappropriate to the question of setting an ABC based on the best scientific information, a biological question about what harvest the stock can endure. The SSC got confused about the difference between science and management, it seems.

But why was the SSC considering cod bycatch in setting the ABC anyway? In a biological context, the form of the mortality—whether from a directed fishing or bycatch– is irrelevant.  Part of the problem stems from the ABC control rule that the same SSC helped develop.

Under that control rule, a sequence of decisions must be made. First, the ABC should never exceed 75% of the fishing levels associated with the stock’s maximum sustainable yield. Second, if that level of fishing effort is not low enough to meet the legal requirements for the rebuilding of overfished stocks in a timely manner, the ABC should be based on the lower level necessary to rebuild the stock. Third, the control rule specifies that if a stock is overfished but cannot rebuild to the size associated with a sustainable yield within the mandatory time limits, even without fishing, then the ABC should be set based on a reduction of the incidental bycatch, i.e. the fishery should be closed and only the unavoidable bycatch of cod should be tolerated by the managers.

The stock assessment panel and the panel peer reviewing that assessment, whose work formed the basis of the SSC deliberations, concluded that the third scenario didn’t apply: cod would likely rebuild if the fishing mortality were adequately reduced, hence the 200mt ABC. This should have been the best science available to the SSC.

But instead, the SSC muddled its way into increasing the 200mt provisional ABC on the basis that the third situation might be the actual state of nature, based on something close to gut feelings, not science. The result was an SSC decision that 386mt of cod could be safely caught, almost twice the amount of the earlier 200mt provisional ABC.  In fact, the SSC simply went ahead and used a business-as-usual protocol corresponding to 75% of the Overfishing Level (OFL). If this sort of “weird science” is what the control rule allows, even when a stock may well be in a fishing-induced biological freefall, then the control rule is an ass.

Some around the table were actually trying to make the case for even a higher ABC, apparently based on their judgment that the third scenario—no significant rebuilding of cod ever, even without any fishing—was in fact the state of nature and that fishing had nothing to do with producing that altered state. More restrictive ABCs, Dr. Cadrin cautioned without irony, came awfully close to being “precautionary science” in his book.

Heaven forbid, SSC, that precautionary advice should be issued.  It’s easier to ignore the fact that not one of the SSC’s point estimates of cod ABC in recent times have resulted in Council management actions that actually eliminated overfishing of cod.

Think for a moment how perverse this interpretation of the control rule is: if managers and the SSC “manage” a stock of fish past the point of no return for rebuilding purposes, then instead of becoming more cautious and restrictive under such dire circumstances, the rule can be used to allow more fishing than would be appropriate if the stock were healthier and rebuilding. And the SSC can apparently give weight to this “regime shift” hypothesis to increase the ABC as long as their opinion is based on their best available…what, gut feelings at the time?

Reality check: it will probably make little difference to the risk of a further cod collapse with the attending disastrous social, economic, and biological consequences whether the ABC is 200mt or 386mt. Without hundred percent observer coverage on fishing boats to record the actual catches, the official ABC or catch limit number has all the value of Monopoly money.

And the New England SSC, perhaps even more directly than the Council, has now become one of the primary drivers of cod’s fate in the region.  Regrettably, as with the Council, they will bear no direct accountability for the results of their actions.


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