New England Fisheries

Another Hard Year Ahead for Cod and Cod Fishermen

Image via NOAA.

May 1 marked the start of the 2016 fishing year, which means new regulations for New England’s fisheries and fishermen. Just days before the season opening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved new catch limits for the groundfish stocks managed by the agency, including Atlantic cod. The catch limits are part of new rules, known as Framework Adjustment 55, that fishermen will have to follow through the 2018 season.

Also just in time for the start of this year’s season, NOAA Fisheries released its 2015 Status of the Stocks, an annual report to the U.S. Congress. The report revealed a general lack of improvement for our fisheries around the nation over the last year. The news was especially bad for New England – 25 percent of the stocks on the “overfishing” list and about 37 percent of the stocks on the “overfished” list are fish found primarily in our regional waters. Such poor results are unacceptable and we must all be on watch to ensure they do not become a worsening trend.

Catch limits fail to reflect cod’s dire circumstances

The new catch limits implemented for this new fishing year represent dramatic cuts for many stocks. Limits for Georges Bank cod, for example, were slashed 62 percent from 2015 limits.

But is this enough? Last year, a stock assessment for Georges Bank cod indicated that the population may be as low as roughly 1 percent of the level scientists agree is sustainable for fishing. The New England Fishery Management Council, the regional agency charged with overseeing our regional fishing fleets, ultimately rejected this data outright, claiming it was flawed. But even if that 1 percent number is incorrect, it doesn’t mean that cod populations are at sustainable levels. As the latest Status of the Stocks reports, Georges Bank cod remain overfished with overfishing occurring.

And things for the Gulf of Maine cod stock aren’t much better. This population also remains overfished with overfishing occurring, according to the NOAA report. In 2014, research revealed that Gulf of Maine cod stocks were only about 3 to 4 percent of their target level, forcing NOAA to implement emergency action in order to prevent a further plummet. Now, barely a year later, NOAA approved a 30 percent increase for the Gulf of Maine cod catch limit.

Too much too soon? We think so.

Lowering at-sea monitoring coverage is counterintuitive

Framework 55 also reduced at-sea monitoring coverage from 24 percent of commercial groundfishing boats to just 14 percent for the 2016 fishing year. This might look like a stroke of good luck for fishermen who have long railed against the monitoring program, but it’s the opposite of what’s needed for a fishery facing strict catch limits.

In a region with a history of overfishing (a history that our fishery managers apparently aren’t willing to rectify any time soon), the only way to ensure accurate tracking of a fishery’s catch is to implement full and comprehensive monitoring. Without it, we’re walking blindly into a future where we become complacent to the terms “overfishing” and “overfished” – and where our most iconic fisheries become mere legends of the past rather economic drivers of our coastal economy.

There’s no question in our minds that this “stroke of good luck” for fishermen is nothing but a bad omen for the fish we depend on – with long-term consequences for all.

The Downward Spiral of a Legacy

In a perfect world, fish would be a limitless resource – but it has been a long time since we could “walk on the backs of cod” in New England. Sadly, it seems that we may never return to those days, but if we want to have any shot at helping our cod stocks instead of continuing to exploit them, the risky management decisions need to end.


4 Responses to Another Hard Year Ahead for Cod and Cod Fishermen

  • Steve says:

    The statement “the population may be as low as roughly 1 percent of the level scientists agree is sustainable for fishing” is badly misleading. Rebuilding is needed, because the stock is much less than the level that is expected to produce MAXIMUM sustainable yield. The fishery is also sustainable at much lower levels.

  • Thomas Nies says:

    “The New England Fishery Management Council, the regional agency charged with overseeing our regional fishing fleets, ultimately rejected this data outright, claiming it was flawed.”

    Once again, Talking Fish chooses to willfully misrepresent the facts. It is not up to the NEFMC to accept or reject a stock assessment. Stock assessments are reviewed by a panel of scientists selected for their expertise. In this case, the GB cod assessment was rejected by a panel that included four stock assessment scientists. While two are also on the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, none are employed by the Council, and all four are widely respected for their knowledge and experience. Even though the assessment was rejected, the panelists concluded the stock was overfished and was not showing any signs of improvement since the last assessment (2011).

  • Thomas Nies says:

    Last year, an independent scientific peer review panel concluded that the computer model used in the Georges Bank cod stock assessment, actually it was the 2015 update to the findings of the previous more comprehensive assessment completed in 2012, did not provide an adequate scientific basis for catch advice. The panel added that the overall condition of the stock, as well as any catch advice, should be based an alternative approach. The peer reviewers also noted that the 2012 assessment is still the best scientific information for determining the condition of the stock – among other parameters — that it continues to be overfished.

    As is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Council forwarded this information to its Scientific and Statistical Committee for a catch limit recommendation which was subsequently approved by the New England Fishery Management Council and, in turn, forwarded to NOAA Fisheries for their review.

    In issuing its final rule on the Council’s proposed action for Georges Bank cod and the other 19 groundfish stocks in the complex, NOAA Fisheries concurred with the Scientific and Statistical Committee’s recommendations and confirmed the Council’s catch advice. Adding to what is actually a 66% reduction in catch for the stock is another measure that is at least as onerous.

    Georges Bank cod is caught along with a number of other groundfish stocks. If or when its annual catch limit is reached, the groundfish fishery that operates in the Georges Bank cod stock area would close. And if the accountability measures also comes to pass, serious economic impacts will accrue to fishing communities even while the Georges cod rebuilding program continues and updates are scrutinized. CLF may be glib in asking its readership if a 66% reduction is enough, but given the comprehensive scientific review process and the potential negative economic impacts, we feel compelled to include the details.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Talking Fish regrets if it got any of the “facts” wrong; it certainly is never “willful” and it is not clear why the Executive Director of the NEFMC would make that accusation. Talking Fish appreciates and published factual clarifications he has made in the past and will continue to do so. And suffice it to say, that nothing in Talking Fish is intended to be “glib.”

      Groundfish management in New England has been terribly objectively and we believe that many jobs have been lost to mismanagement and failures to take adequately effective reductions in catch. While it is convenient to lay everything off to the scientists who advise the Council, the scientific advice has been candid for many years that its cod catch estimates historically have underestimated the actual catch and overestimated the stock biomass.

      With over a 20-year history of overfishing cod, regularly estimated at several multiples of the “annual catch limits” by those same scientists that Mr. Nies puts so much stock in, our view is that the managers should approach the scientific advice they are getting with a much healthier dose of skepticism. Ultimate responsibility under the law lies with the Council and NOAA Fisheries. Moreover, what many observers would characterize as a “high risk” policy that the scientists operate under comes directly from the Council and NOAA.

      Finally, while Mr. Nies’s perspective on the efficacy of the accountability measures is noted, the fact remains that with 14% observer coverage—and a lot of that coverage being allocated to the low-landing day boats—he nor anyone else will ever know when the “annual catch limit is reached” in fact because of unreported and unmonitored discards. Recent events make clear that even some of the biggest operators are not to be trusted to report what is actually taking place at sea.

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