New England Fisheries

Atlantic cod is still a world of unknown, so why raise the catch limit?

Framework 57 proposes to increase catch limits for overfished Atlantic cod stocks. Image via NOAA.

I’m still fairly new to the fisheries game in New England, but one thing I’ve learned is that the New England Fishery Management Council isn’t exactly a risk-averse group. In fact, they seem to gravitate towards risk when long-term gains are measured against short-term sacrifices. This is especially evident in the groundfish fishery.

New England’s groundfish fishery is a particularly tricky one to manage, and I don’t envy those who are faced with the task. But when it comes to Atlantic cod—still persistently overfished and subject to overfishing in the Gulf of Maine after 28 years of management – you just have to ask, what are they thinking?

Irresponsible increases

In December, the Council finalized Framework 57 to the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery Management Plan, and NOAA Fisheries is now seeking comments before making a final rule. One purpose of Framework 57 is to set new annual catch limits for all groundfish stocks for fishing years 2018 to 2020. For Atlantic cod, Framework 57 proposes to increase catch limits for both the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stocks by 41 percent and 139 percent, respectively.

Operational stock assessments were completed last year for 19 of the 20 groundfish stocks addressed in Framework 57, which is “intended to incorporate stock status changes.” The Council, and now NOAA Fisheries, however, proposed significant catch increases for Atlantic cod when the stock statuses did not change.

More specifically, the spawning stock biomass for Gulf of Maine cod, though up a few percentage points, is still only estimated to be five to eight percent of the target level. Furthermore, the stock is not on target to meet its 2024 rebuilding timeline.

For Georges Bank cod, the stock status cannot even be quantitatively determined because the stock assessment model was thrown out during peer review in 2015. Thus, scientists (those who do favor a precautionary approach) concluded that the stock is still overfished. Overfishing status and whether or not the stock is on schedule to rebuild are still unknown.

For stressed stocks that plummeted to historic lows just three to four years ago, and with the added unknowns of climate change shifts, this information should cause a few alarm bells to go off. Precautionary management and sustained catch limits are, at best, more appropriate than catch increases.

We’re still missing the big picture

Taking a step back, it’s true that the catch limits for both Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks, even if the increases are implemented, are still quite low; too low to sustain a targeted fishery. Fishermen will be able to land a few more cod that they are currently pitching overboard, which is a good thing for the industry; however, we still won’t have a better sense of what’s happening on the water.

It’s widely known that cod are being illegally discarded at-sea due to a lack of accountability in the groundfish fishery. In fishing year 2018, illegal discards will continue to be common practice since only 15 percent of groundfish sector trips will have an at-sea monitor. This is a major problem if managers are trying to rebuild stocks because low monitoring coverage and lack of accountability lead to poor data.

Unfortunately, Framework 57 is not helping. Allowing more cod to be caught and landed without fixing the accountability issue is possibly creating a situation in which even more fish would be discarded – and we still would have no idea how many.

NOAA Fisheries is accepting comments on Framework 57 through this Friday, April 6, 2018. Comments can be submitted via an online portal.


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