New England Fisheries

Fish Styx: The convenience of denying the death of Atlantic cod

Image via NOAA.

Atlantic cod’s future in New England is overshadowed with existential dread. With so many opinions flying around about what the “science” says or what the fishermen “see,” trying to make sense of what is going on with Atlantic cod with any precision seems a fool’s errand. However, we must not fall victim to the convenience of denial. If anything, recent cod stock assessments shadows have only darkened.

In August, the New England Fishery Science Center completed a series of “operational assessments” for 20 groundfish stocks. The ostensible purpose of these quick assessments was to shed light on changes in stock status in the time between the major stock assessment reviews.

The news was not good for a number of stocks that are either in worse condition or are still not showing any recovery, despite mandated catch reductions (such as those implemented for Gulf of Maine cod). Furthermore, the number of stock models with “diagnostic problems” expanded from two to seven.

From these assessments, the Science Center determined Georges Bank cod populations were at an unfathomable 1% of where they should be and that 2014 fishing pressure was estimated to be 994% higher than the overfishing limit. In response, the New England Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) promptly denounced the assessment model, deeming the Georges Bank cod models now unusable for management advice.

On the somewhat bright side, rejecting the models means the Council moved another stock off the “overfishing” list into the “unknown” category – not as elegant an adjustment that moved New England yellowtail flounder instantaneously from the “overfished” category to “rebuilt with no overfishing occurring” – but still pretty slick.

No good news

Models or not, certain fundamental signals of the severity of the current cod problem remain. All of the U.S. and Canadian Georges Bank cod surveys continue to show the lowest levels in decades. The last time the surveys identified a year class of 1-year-old recruits to the fishery that was above the average was 1990.

Additionally, the fish from the recent trawl survey were smaller at various ages than in previous surveys, and the older, more productive cod seem to be virtually gone. 2014 was the first year the Canadian survey didn’t catch any fish older than 8 years old; that’s maybe a 35-36” fish. Not very hopeful circumstances for a species that should be living longer than 20 years and growing to twice that size. The assessment scientists, once again, could not point to a single positive biological indicator for the species.

Why are cod so unproductive? It seems everyone has an opinion, so here’s mine: As the scientists tell us, these cod populations have been pummeled by rampant overfishing for 37 years in a row (there’s no reason for me to believe last year was any different). Add to that the stresses of changing temperatures, plankton crashes, increased predation on larvae and juvenile cod, and unreported discards… and you have a species on the ropes.

In this context, SSC’s advice to the managers for the upcoming fishing years with respect to Georges Bank cod seems only barely scientific. Last week, SSC recommended that 2016-2018 catch limits should be based on an average of the most recent three-year catches, reduced by the catch declines seen in the recent NOAA trawl surveys: negative 24%. At the risk of exposing my mathematical limitations, isn’t that just about the same as scientifically blessing continued declines rather than making any recommendations that would reverse them?

Even more puzzling, SSC apparently considers that there is no more doubt about what is going on with a stock for which they just threw the models out than there is with, for example, a rebuilt stock with “good models” like redfish. The overfishing limits (OFL) they have recommended for both are reduced by identical “scientific uncertainty” adjustments – negative 25% – to produce their recommended acceptable biological catch (ABC).

Directionally, the SSC’s advice for cod has some merit: catches should certainly be cut. But at a time when there is such scientific uncertainty that they have to throw out the assessment model and where there is not one positive biological sign of any basis for hope of recovery, I have to ask: are there any data sets or circumstances too far for this crowd?

Are there any circumstances beyond which the science advisors will tell the managers that further catch of cod must stop?

Apparently, not yet.


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