New England Fisheries

Sorry, No Local Cod Today, Tomorrow, or Anytime Soon

Atlantic cod stocks have failed to recover after decades of Council management (Photo Credit: Hans-Petter Fjeld)

Last Friday, NOAA scientists informed the New England Fishery Management Council that the most recent assessment of Gulf of Maine cod indicated that the cod were, well, collapsed would be putting it mildly. They estimated the numbers of breeding cod to be only at 3-4% of the target levels. That’s likely well less than 2% of the cod population that once dominated New England’s coastal waters.

But this foreboding news regarding the region’s most iconic fish species is hardly surprising. The New England Council and NOAA Fisheries set the 2012 cod catch levels at the highest levels they could get away with, even vigorously defending those high levels in court. Despite explicit warnings from the scientists that the 2011 cod estimates might well be too optimistic, the New England Council assigned no greater scientific risks to the cod management actions than they would have to a healthy stock, authorizing a quota that they knew had no better than a 50 percent chance of being correct.

While they showed a modicum of “caution” by setting constant catch levels for the next three fishing years (starting in 2013) rather than assuming any rebuilding, they were starting with a catch level that was too high to begin with. For that matter, any directed commercial or recreational catch of Gulf of Maine cod would have been too much— warnings they ignored. They seem to have now lost their gamble with this fishery.

Lest cod’s current dire circumstances are underappreciated, University of New Hampshire marine historians estimate that in 1861 hook-and-line fishermen landed 9,755 tons of Gulf of Maine cod between Penobscot Bay and Grand Manan Island and within 20 miles of the shore. That same year, New England commercial fishermen landed something on the order of 69,000-86,640 tons of Gulf of Maine cod.

In 2013, even with some of the most sophisticated electronic fish finding equipment and high-powered boats that could move onto the remaining cod wherever they showed up, New England commercial fisherman only landed 795 tons of Gulf of Maine cod, 1.2% of those 1861 landings.

But haven’t climate changes in the ocean screwed up cod’s future in New England anyway? Some would argue that this is cod’s endgame anyway so, what does it matter?

The two most important management actions the New England Council and NOAA could take to minimize the negative impacts of climate change on cod and other important species are to ensure that fish populations are at healthy levels as quickly as possible and to protect and enhance the essential habitats in the ocean where these animals live. Those actions would provide a safety net for cod and other fish, buffering them against the stresses of climate changes.

Neither management response seems likely. The council’s dismal record in New England rebuilding Gulf of Maine cod speaks for itself. These fish have been officially and continuously overfished since the 1980s; more than 30 years and counting. No one is holding their breath that the New England Council will do any better for the few remaining spawning cod in the future.

And there is even less reason to think that the New England Council will take meaningful action protecting essential cod habitats. In fact, their apparent goal in the essential fish habitat management plan currently under development is to open up as many of the areas currently closed to fishing for groundfish as they can, including areas that are known to be important to cod.

Critics say that this is what happens when you have a federal fishery management system that puts active fishermen who will economically benefit from their decisions—at least in the short run—on the fishery management councils; they will almost always vote their pocketbooks. Probably many of us would. Some councils have belied that notion, however, with fishermen acting to rebuild and manage their fish well.

But the New England Council voting majorities have always seemed particularly fraught with short-sighted and self-interested decision making. For example, other regional fishery councils have approached the protection of essential fish habitat in a precautionary manner, allowing for a “buffer” against the scientific uncertainty surrounding the long-term chronic impacts from fishing gears on ocean spaces. In New England, most of the council members don’t even seem to have the word “precaution” in their vocabulary.

So the fate of Gulf of Maine cod and the protection of meaningful areas of our oceans from fishing gear damage will once again rest on NOAA, who gets the final say in these matters and is supposed to represent and protect all the public interests in healthy oceans. They certainly understand the importance of both rebuilding cod populations quickly and of protecting essential marine fish habitats for achieving long term ocean health and for mitigating climate change impacts.

But will they act on that knowledge? Or will all the codfish in New England’s seafood stores continue to come from away, from the North Atlantic countries that have been willing to tackle the tough decisions head-on?


3 Responses to Sorry, No Local Cod Today, Tomorrow, or Anytime Soon

  • E.F. “Terry” Stockwell III says:

    A Word (or Several) From the Fishery Managers
    E.F. “Terry” Stockwell III , Chair, New England Fishery Management Council

    The recent letter to the New England Fishery Management Council reporting that Gulf of Maine cod is in dire condition prompts an obvious question: what went wrong? How we choose to answer that question is critical. We can use the answer to assign blame, or we can use it to improve future decisions. I think the latter is more productive.

    If we are going to improve management decisions, for Gulf of Maine cod or any other fish stocks, we need to evaluate past choices in light of the information that was available at the time. Because there are several errors and misleading statements in the 8/4/2014 Talking Fish posting by Mr. Peter Shelley, I would like to clarify the facts for those who may be unfamiliar with the recent history of Gulf of Maine cod management.

    In late 2011, a scientific assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock revealed that its status was very different from that determined by an assessment completed in 2008. This caught fishermen, managers, and scientists by surprise. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service led the response to this news and tried to balance the pressing need to reduce fishing mortality with the mitigation of economic impacts on the fishing industry.

    After considering a request from the Council, the Fisheries Service set the quota for the 2012 fishing year at 6,700 metric tons (mt). Contrary to the August 4 Talking Fish post, this quota was not “vigorously defended” in court because it was never legally challenged. Mr. Shelley opposed this catch limit in a letter to the Secretary of Commerce, supporting a quota of 4,000 mt for 2012. Actual catches of 3,900 mt in fishing year 2012 were below both the quota and Mr. Shelley’s recommendation.

    The next assessment for Gulf of Maine cod was performed in late 2012 to re-examine the 2011 work. Results were very similar to the previous assessment; the stock was confirmed to be in poor condition. The assessment was reviewed by a panel of independent scientists who added several special comments. Two important ones bear repeating:

    “If recent weak recruitment of Gulf of Maine cod continues, productivity and rebuilding of the stock will be less than projected.”

    “The NEFSC 2011 fall and 2012 spring survey abundance indices were the 4th lowest and the lowest in their respective time series. [The 2012 Massachusetts trawl survey] spring index was also the lowest in their time series. Because the 2012 observations were not incorporated into the assessment formulations, the projections are likely to be optimistic.” (

    In plain language, the review panel noted that this stock would not rebuild unless the numbers of new young fish entering the Gulf of Maine cod population improved. The reviewers voiced serious concern about the reliability of projections – that is, predicted increases in stock size – not the 2011 stock size.

    After the assessment, the Council’s Groundfish Plan Development Team (PDT) prepared acceptable biological catch (ABC) recommendations for the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC). The PDT identified two possible ABCs, at 1,249 mt and 1,550 mt, and recommended 1,249 mt for several reasons, but noted that 1,550 mt was an alternative that would have fewer economic impacts. The PDT also recommended keeping the ABC constant for three years because of the uncertainty about the projections.

    The SSC, a panel of experts made up of scientists who are charged with determining what the ABC should be, generally agreed with the PDT’s recommendation. It noted that both alternatives appropriately used the assessment outcomes and accounted for scientific uncertainty.

    “An ABC of 1,550 mt,” the SSC said, “is the maximum the SSC endorses based on the PDT analysis, but urges the Council to consider the 1,249 mt alternative in order to conserve the stock and enhance the likelihood of rebuilding.” The Council chose the 1,550 mt ABC because it represented a greater than 50 percent cut in catch from fishing year 2012, was predicted to have fewer economic impacts, and was expected to promote rebuilding.

    Mr. Shelley opposed this quota and suggested the fishery should be shut down – a suggestion the Regional Administrator opposed and the Council rejected by a vote of 0-16-1. This catch level was challenged in court by the Conservation Law Foundation as part of a broader suit. There were many arguments put forward opposing this quota; all were flatly rejected by the judge. (The court did rule against the amount of the 2012 quota that could be carried over into 2013).

    To summarize: the Council adopted a catch limit for 2013 that was based on a peer reviewed stock assessment, which was endorsed by a panel of scientists as accounting for scientific uncertainty, and which was determined by a judge to comply with legal requirements. Actual catch in 2013 was less than the limit.

    And yet – the Gulf of Maine cod stock appears to be in dire condition. How did that happen? The new assessment may help us understand what went wrong. I doubt it will be as simple an explanation as the one put forward by Mr. Shelley.

    Assuming that the peer review approves the new assessment, the Council and the public will soon face very difficult decisions. But as we struggle to move forward, lessons learned from past decisions should be based on facts.

  • Peter Shelley says:

    There is a legal doctrine that is used to infer responsibility when something under someone’s management and control goes wrong : res ipsa loquitor. The thing speaks for itself. The only evidence that is needed for the mismanagement of Gulf of Maine cod is the status of Gulf of Maine cod itself.

    The New England Council’s response to my blog demonstrates once again the fundamental character flaw with this management body: it is much more comfortable pointing the finger of responsibility for the condition of this stock at anyone else than it is accepting even an ounce of responsibility for its own ineffective actions.

    The Council’s response is correct that I mis-identified the catch limit that was vigorously defended in court as the 2012 fishing year limit, when I meant to refer to the 2013 fishing year catch limit set by Framework 50. But the point was that the Council has repeatedly set the catch limits that in retrospect have been too high, 2012 and 2013 being no exception. As a result, this stock has been overfished and subject to continued overfishing for every year since 1991, the first year the Council quantified the overfishing limits. Let me repeat, the New England Council has not stopped overfishing on Gulf of Maine cod for 23 years. If the current update stands (and I am reading the update correctly), actual fishing rates in 2013 were between six and seven times the overfishing rate.

    The Council’s response? They were just doing what their scientists told them to do. Well, that’s not completely true because they didn’t vote for the preferred limits that either their scientists or their plan development team recommended and—they fail to point out—they are 100% responsible for the ludicrous “coin toss” risk management policy they imposed on the scientists, despite the fact that Gulf of Maine cod were showing no positive biological signs and that the cod models assessments persistently had been allowing too much fishing to take place.

    Was my explanation—ineffective management—too simple? Aren’t sun spots or seals or global warming something else a more plausible culprit?

    Look, New England Council, your job and responsibility is to stop overfishing. Period. That is something that is within your control. And you haven’t done that with Gulf of Maine cod and many other stocks, for decades in some cases. Instead, year after year, you have opted for the “fewer economic impacts” approach noted in your response above.

    How exactly has that behavior worked out for fishermen and the resource? The Council’s track record with Gulf of Maine cod—both biologically and economically—is there for anyone to consider. In addition to the long term economic costs to regional fishermen, mismanagement just cost the American taxpayer some $32 million in taxpayer bailouts to the groundfish fleet (point of reference, nominal gross revenues from all cod landings in New England in 2012 were only about $21.7 million).

    As I said, the thing speaks for itself.

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