New England Fisheries

Feds Offer More Excuses for Reckless Management of Cod

Gulf of Maine cod are not on track to rebuild by 2024. Image via NEFSC/NOAA.

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published the final rule for Framework Adjustment 58 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, announcing annual catch limits (ACLs) for New England’s groundfish stocks in fishing year 2019. These ACLs replace default specifications that were originally implemented for May 1 due to the 35-day federal government shutdown earlier this year. Alarmingly, the new ACL for Georges Bank (GB) cod represents a 15 percent increase from the 2018 catch limit, and the agency’s justifications for doing so are sketchy to say the least.

A Stock in Trouble

A 15 percent increase may not seem like a lot, but GB cod is overfished and has been for more than three decades. The stock is also subject to overfishing and likely experiencing high mortality. Additionally, scientists rejected the stock’s assessment model in 2015, so it’s currently not possible to make future projections about the population. As a result, GB cod’s rebuilding status is unknown.

Needless to say, every fish counts at this point, and a 15 percent increase should not be taken lightly – especially only a year after the ACL was increased by 139 percent. NMFS, however, continues to make excuses for its reckless management decisions, jeopardizing the future of this iconic stock.

Excuse #1: “The 2019 ACL increase for U.S. fishermen is not an increase in the overall available catch [or ABC], but rather is the result of the way the overall ABC is divided between the U.S. and Canada.”

True, but the overall available catch is not the issue here. ACLs, not ABCs, are the mechanism for controlling catch and preventing overfishing at-sea. NMFS still cannot argue against the fact that it is allowing U.S. fishermen to harvest more GB cod, compared to last year, when the stock is overfished and subject to overfishing. Any justification around this is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Excuse #2: The catch limit increase “is consistent with the rebuilding program for GB cod.”

One question: how? Scientists have no idea if GB cod is on track to rebuild given that its assessment model was thrown out four years ago. For the agency to make such a definitive statement when it is currently not possible to assess the future progress of GB cod simply makes no sense.

Furthermore, the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires that rebuilding programs end overfishing immediately for overfished stocks. The agency’s rebuilding program for GB cod has yet to do so, and an increased ACL is unlikely to get it there.

Excuse #3: “This [action] reflects the best scientific information available,” as required by MSA National Standard guidelines.

Yes, the 2019 U.S. ABC and ACL for GB cod were updated based on the most recent assessment of Eastern GB cod. This assessment confirmed a continued poor stock status and recommended maintaining low catch levels to promote rebuilding.

Even though Eastern GB cod catch was adjusted accordingly, NMFS considers the GB cod stock as one population. The best scientific information available urges precautionary management, and NMFS, at minimum, should have maintained status quo for the entire GB cod stock.

These excuses pose a danger to the GB cod population that we cannot ignore. Action is needed to protect and rebuild GB cod, not exacerbate the pressure on this already overfished stock.


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