New England Fisheries

Council Should Request Emergency Action for Cod

Image via Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Atlantic cod has been managed in New England waters as two stocks—Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod—since the early 1970s. On Thursday, the New England Fishery Management Council will receive a presentation on a report that shows this approach does not reflect the true stock structure of Atlantic cod. Conservation Law Foundation has asked the Council to take immediate action in response.

Five Stocks, Not Two

The Atlantic Cod Stock Structure Working Group assessed myriad sources of data—from genetics to fishermen’s knowledge—over the last two years to develop an understanding of the true stock structure of Atlantic cod. Based on its analyses, the Working Group rejected the two-stock management approach and, instead, proposed five biological stocks for Atlantic cod: (1) Georges Bank, (2) Southern New England, (3) Western Gulf of Maine and Cape Cod (winter spawners), (4) Western Gulf of Maine (spring spawners), and (5) Eastern Gulf of Maine.

This new understanding has important implications for science and management because, according to the Working Group, assessments and management measures that fail to consider the true biological stock structure of cod can inhibit stock rebuilding. Under the current management approach, both cod stocks have been overfished and subject to overfishing for decades and have no prospects of rebuilding on schedule.

In light of the Working Group’s conclusion, in a letter sent last week, CLF urged the Council to request that the Secretary of Commerce, through the National Marine Fisheries Service, take emergency action to protect all known spawning components of cod in the Western Gulf of Maine. We assert that sufficient information exists to take action now to protect the stocks that co-exist in the Western Gulf of Maine, even under the current management approach, while the Council wrestles with next steps.

Emergency Action is Warranted

Under federal policy, three criteria must be met to warrant emergency action: (1) there must be recent, unforeseen events, (2) failure to take emergency action must present serious conservation and management problems, and (3) the immediate benefits of emergency action must outweigh those of standard rulemaking and public procedure.

In our letter, CLF asserts that current circumstances related to the Gulf of Maine cod fishery satisfy all three criteria.

1. The Working Group’s rejection of the two-stock management approach coupled with Gulf of Maine cod falling to the lowest biomass index levels on record are recent, unforeseen events.

2. Gulf of Maine cod has only a zero to one percent chance of rebuilding on time even in the absence of fishing. Also, the mismatch between management units and biological stocks is likely inhibiting rebuilding. Both of these qualify as serious conservation and management problems that must be remedied.

3. It could be years before the Council takes action to address the implications of the Working Group’s report, so the immediate benefits of protecting vulnerable spawning components of an overfished stock outweigh the benefits of standard rulemaking.

Protections Have Already Been Proposed

The Council was presented with a sound option for protecting cod spawning components in the Western Gulf of Maine more than five years ago. While the Council rejected the option at the time, its value is increasingly relevant today.

On Thursday, the Council should acknowledge that past management measures have not provided adequate protections for Atlantic cod and request that NMFS implement spawning protections in the Western Gulf of Maine throughout the entirety of the spawning season. For the stocks not protected by the proposed measures, NMFS should conduct a thorough data review of spawning times and locations outside of the Western Gulf of Maine in order to protect spawning cod in those regions.

CLF’s letter to the Council, including a map of the proposed protections, is available here.


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