Charting a Course for Gulf of Maine Cod: Part I

Atlantic cod

Atlantic Cod; Photo Credit: NOAA

By now, most people concerned with fisheries management in New England, and in fact many others across the country, are aware of the difficult situation unfolding around the Gulf of Maine (GOM) cod stock.  For those who are not, a stock assessment completed late in 2011 drastically altered our perception of the stock from the last assessment completed in 2008, and suggests that the resource is in much worse shape than we previously thought.

Actually, in many ways the 2011 assessment tells a story similar to the 2008 assessment:  Biomass reached all-time lows during the 1990s, but then approximately doubled by 2001.  Thereafter, biomass dipped again to another low point in the mid-2000s, before climbing again toward the end of the 2000s.

The critical difference between the two assessments lies in the pace of rebuilding since the recent low in the mid-2000s.  The 2008 assessment suggested that the population was increasing extremely rapidly, with growth of more than 200% from 2005 to 2007.   In doing so, it had exceeded the overfishing threshold, and was well on its way toward the rebuilding target biomass that would produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.

In contrast, the 2011 assessment suggests stock growth on the order of 50% from 2006 to 2010, certainly more modest but encouraging nonetheless.  However, the resulting biomass estimate remains below the overfishing threshold and is approximately 70% less than that estimated by the 2008 assessment.

Based on the outcomes of the new assessment, the management plan would normally call for a substantial reduction in the catch limit for the 2012 fishing year commencing May 1.  That reduction would aim to conserve a species of tremendous cultural and ecological importance, thereby allowing for the long-term persistence of the fishery. But, the reduction would also mean severe near-term impacts upon fishing communities.

This unexpected outcome, the stark change from one assessment to the next, and the significant implications of potential cuts in quotas for commercial fishermen across the Gulf of Maine region led NOAA to take unusual steps in response.  First, a task force comprised of agency staff and Council members was created to identify all available options.  Through several workshops with managers and stakeholders and by carefully examining the law, the agency determined that it could invoke its “emergency” authority, which allows a catch limit to be set for one year that will reduce but not necessarily end overfishing (as the law otherwise requires).

There has been widespread support for this general approach across the fisheries management community, from industry members to environmentalists to decision-makers and others, including EDF.  The major point of dispute has been how high the 2012 catch limit should be, with arguments ranging from 4,000 metric tons (mt) to 7,000 mt or more.

Now, NOAA has proposed a catch limit of 6,700 mt for 2012.  That represents a reduction of approximately 22% from 2011, a far cry from the cut of 80% or more that would be required outside of an emergency situation, but an impact on fishermen nonetheless.  At the same time, the interim catch limit undoubtedly represents a substantial risk of further stock depletion if the 2011 assessment is accurate.  So, why should we move forward knowingly taking such a risk?

First, the stock can probably weather that harvest for one more year to buy us more time to improve our understanding of the resource, and map out a response to a situation no one saw coming.  Indeed, the stock has withstood harvests in the range of 5,000-11,000 mt for the past decade without persistent decline, so we believe one more year in that range won’t lead to outright collapse.

Still, we should make no mistake that harvest of that magnitude now looks like much more of a gamble, and we cannot in good conscience maintain that level of catch much longer unless we learn that the resource in is better shape than estimated by the 2011 assessment.

So, like any risk, whether this one is worth taking depends upon what rewards we stand to gain.  Avoiding widespread socio-economic impacts is one reward, but that reward might be only for the single year provided by the emergency provision.  Whether we are merely delaying the pain, or whether we can avoid or at least minimize it, will be largely determined by what else we do with the time we have bought.

Tomorrow, I will outline two major goals we should aim to accomplish in the year ahead to most effectively utilize the time at hand and more confidently and effectively manage the Gulf of Maine cod fishery.

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