New England Fisheries

State of Denial: Fishermen disagree (again) with Gulf of Maine cod assessments

Atlantic cod has been overfished or subject to overfishing in New England since at least 1989. Photo credit: Brian Skerry,

In summer 2014, when federal stocks assessments shockingly revealed that the Gulf of Maine cod population had plummeted to 3 to 4 percent of its target biomass, NOAA took emergency action, essentially closing down the directed cod fishery. Some from the fishing industry, however, claimed faulty assessments. “Cod are everywhere; we can’t avoid them,” they claimed. Wanting to get to the bottom of the disagreement between NOAA’s science and fishermen’s claims, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) utilized a portion of its federal groundfish disaster relief funds to implement its own industry-based survey. The survey was developed in partnership with UMass Dartmouth SMAST scientists and local groundfish fishermen.

The Boston Globe recently reported on DMF’s survey that, compared to the NOAA surveys, “trawl[ed] for cod in 10 times as many locations…cast its nets every month from last April to January [rather than only twice a year], and kept them in the water about 50 percent longer.”

Comparing this year’s DMF survey data to a comparable industry-based survey conducted by DMF a decade ago, DMF’s survey confirmed the conclusion of the federal stock assessments: the Gulf of Maine cod population has undergone an 80 percent decrease in the last ten years and the number of juvenile and adult cod is significantly fewer.

Assessment case closed, right? Hardly. Even though the DMF analysis goes out of its way to explain why some fishermen’s observations seem to deviate from what scientists see, industry leaders continue to bash the science.

This response puts the disagreement into a new – and unacceptable – realm. It seems obvious now that those who disagree with the assessments will never agree. They no longer seem to only be blaming faulty assessments but the foundation of science itself.

The Boston Globe story quotes Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition and also a member of the survey advisory committee as saying, “The state survey literally does zero to improve our confidence. You can’t just sample anywhere. You have to go to where the cod are supposed to be.”

That is just not how science is conducted. It isn’t science to go out and search only for the evidence that supports one’s world view. If the scientists were to “go where the cod are supposed to be,” that would introduce such a large bias to the survey as to make it worthless. If industry members truly think this way, it’s no wonder that the industry-dominated fishery management system has failed to introduce adequate precautionary management measures that could, perhaps, have rebuilt the struggling cod populations in New England.

The survey, in addition to its value for population assessments, is producing very important information, including detailed month-by-month information (publicly available online) that demonstrates that the current closed areas are not always optimally located to protect the greatest aggregations of the most overfished species. The survey also confirms one of the most troubling facts previously pointed out by NOAA assessment scientists: the large, fecund female cod have largely been fished out of the Gulf of Maine except in some of the closed areas. Further confirming this loss of productivity, there are virtually no juvenile cod coming along to rebuild the fishery.

DMF plans to continue the industry-based surveys, but if the industry’s reaction to these initial results foreshadows what’s to come, it seems there is little hope that this additional survey effort and expense will resolve the reality gap between fishermen and scientists.

No one is celebrating these results. In fact, folks from all persuasions would have welcomed results demonstrating a robust cod recovery. It is both devastating and dispiriting that the iconic fish species that built New England has fallen so far and has not been successfully managed back to health after 25 years of effort. It seems inescapable that groundfish fishing communities will continue to face hard times for the foreseeable future.


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