Net Loss

Are the Gulf of Maine’s cod — and cod fishermen — really doomed?

  • BY: COLIN WOODARD

Photo credit David Harding/Shutterstock.com

Mainers have been cod fishing for a living for a very long time. By the time of the Mayflowervoyage, the cod fishing stations at Damariscove and Monhegan islands had been operating year-round for the better part of a decade. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the Gulf of Maine’s early commercial fishermen hauled six-foot cod into their open dories with handlines, salted and cured them on the rocky shore, and sent shiploads back to Europe. In the twentieth century, vessels got bigger, safer, faster, and so very much better at scooping up the bottom-dwelling cod that by century’s end, fishermen wiped out the inshore stocks of eastern Maine, drove Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod to small fractions of their previous populations, and so damaged the Grand Banks of Newfoundland that even after two decades of near-closure to fishing, it has yet to recover. As a result of the reduction of cod and other key seafood species, you’ll find very few trawlers left in Maine’s fishing harbors, and the cod you buy at a supermarket a few hundred yards from the Gulf of Maine is likely to have been shipped in from Iceland.

It’s been a terrible time for fishermen, but in recent years, those who have survived have had reason for optimism. Austerity — in the form of various restrictions on fishing — have allowed some damaged fish populations to be fully rehabilitated, including dogfish, Gulf of Maine pollock, and the haddock and scallops on Georges Bank, the vast fishing shoals southeast of Cape Cod to which the biggest Maine vessels still venture.

The federal regulators — the fisheries service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — is legally required to end overfishing of all stocks in the country by 2014, and by the middle of last year it reported it had done so for twenty-one of New England’s thirty-six monitored stocks. Gulf of Maine cod, NOAA fisheries determined in 2008, was rapidly rebuilding.

Which is why NOAA’s new assessment of the cod fishery caused such shock and dismay when it was first surfaced just before Thanksgiving. Since 2008, fisheries scientists reported, the Gulf of Maine cod population has not expanded as expected, and is now only about a fifth the size it needs to be to be considered rebuilt. To restore the stock by 2014 would require fishermen’s catch quotas to be slashed by as much as 90 percent, making it difficult or impossible to fish for other bottom-dwelling fish like pollock, haddock, and flounder that swim among the cod. After a period of cautious optimism, shell-shocked fishermen from Cape Cod to East Quoddy Head saw an artillery shell falling on one of their last remaining positions.

“Having such a big divergence from the previous assessment is a big surprise and leaves many, many questions,” says Jim Odlin, owner of a small Portland-based fleet of trawlers and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, which makes many of the decisions about how to implement NOAA recommendations. “If we accept the new assessment, how do we move forward and still maintain some segments of the industry?”

That’s the question fishermen and fisheries regulators have been grappling with ever since, and the stakes are high for Maine fishermen. While big offshore boats like Odlin’s can travel farther afield for redfish, Georges Bank groundfish, and other species, smaller vessels have fewer options. “Day boats in southern Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts are by far the most economically dependent on Gulf of Maine cod, in some cases accounting for up to 90 percent of the catch,” says Peter Shelley, senior counsel of the Conservation Law Foundation, the organization whose 1991 law suit forced the federal government to take measures to stop overfishing and rebuild depleted stocks. “They have no other options, whereas the big trip boats have lots of options.”

“The remaining groundfishermen are having a hard enough time making ends meet,” says former Maine marine resources commissioner Robin Alden, executive director of the Stonington-based Penobscot East Resource Center. “This could be a very serious blow.”

Are the new NOAA population estimates right? A lot of people are skeptical, and not just fishermen. Johanna Thomas, regional ocean program director at the Environmental Defense Fund, told reporters the “science is not perfect” and that “there needs to be some flexibility in how we respond” to the new data. Nineteen eclectic members of the U.S. Congress — including Senators Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Scott Brown, and John Kerry and Representatives Chellie Pingree, Michael Michaud, and Barney Frank — wrote Secretary of Commerce John Bryson on January 31, urging him to sign off on a provisional plan to make more modest cuts in the 2012 fishing quota and to spend the next year carefully evaluating and retesting the recent survey.

At press time, it appeared that was exactly what was to happen. New England Fishery Management Council has recommended NOAA adopt an interim emergency measure that will reduce fishing pressure on the cod, but not by as much as would normally be required to ensure the stock is rebuilt on time. Instead of slashing cod quotas by 90 percent, NOAA is expected to impose a cut of between 12 and 22 percent while scientists double-check and retest elements of the recent assessment. But it’s only a year-long reprieve for fishermen. If the new NOAA estimates are proved correct, the fishery will have to take a massive hit in 2013 to avoid Gulf of Maine cod being fished into oblivion. The Conservation Law Foundation is concerned the newly proposed cuts are too modest, and thinks a 47 percent cut is more appropriate. “The calculations are that there’s a one in three chance the spawning stocks will continue to decline, and that runs the risk of doing long term damage as happened in Newfoundland,” Peter Shelley says. “Putting the whole fishery at risk for next year’s profits is irresponsible.”

Of course, it could be that the new assessment was overly pessimistic. Although fishermen followed their prescribed quotas, NOAA has now downgraded its estimate of the current size of the adult population from some 34,000 metric tons to under 12,000, a dramatic correction that has raised plenty of eyebrows. How could the previous assessments have been so far off?

Fisheries officials say prior surveys underestimated the pressure recreational fishermen were putting on the cod resource and overestimated the size of a new generation of fish, probably because their survey ship made a lucky strike when gathering the data fed into the models. “The [past] conclusion was overly optimistic,” says NOAA Fisheries’ Gloucester-based spokesperson Marjorie Mooney-Seus. “It’s not a case of the date being wrong, but a case of there now being more data, which makes [current] estimates more accurate.”

A scientific review committee has been looking at other potential weaknesses. According to a January 30 memo to the regional council, outside scientists wonder if NOAA erred by assuming that every fish caught and released by recreational and commercial boats died from the experience or by possibly overestimating the size of the recreational catch. More daunting, they’re exploring whether the basic assumption that “Gulf of Maine cod” is one stock might be seriously flawed.

Currently, NOAA’s quotas apply to the entire U.S. side of the Gulf of Maine basin, from Ipswich Bay in Massachusetts (where there are a great many cod found near shore) to easternmost Maine (where they have been commercially extinct for decades). For years, some fisheries scientists have been accumulating evidence suggesting this is wrongheaded: There probably isn’t one big “stock” of cod in the Gulf but rather many, several of which may be adapted to live in one particular area. “All around the world, we’re starting to get a lot of evidence that stocks are on a much finer scale than we’ve thought,” says James Wilson, professor of marine science at the University of Maine. “Sometimes cod is very local, and sometimes a stock is highly migratory. But the management regime just averages it all together across the Gulf, which can result in too much pressure on one stock and very little on another.”

The solution, says Alden, is to introduce a finer-scale management regime, one that recognizes that the real “stocks” at issue have different characteristics, from the virtually endangered cod of eastern Maine to the apparently plentiful stocks of Ipswich Bay. Her husband, fisherman-turned-scholar Ted Ames, has long argued for a plan by which state and federal authorities set recovery targets but let local fishermen work out the details for — and have sole access to — their immediate nearshore areas. Such a system would be similar to the state’s successful lobster management regime in that it would give fishermen an incentive to improve the ecological productivity of their home territory and would likely foster the use of smaller, less powerful vessels and gear technologies. Eastern Maine, Ames has argued, would be an excellent place to test the concept.

While NOAA Fisheries is increasingly focused on understanding the true structure of the Gulf’s cod population, a finer-scale system isn’t in the cards for 2013. For the short term, fishermen are watching and hoping that the latest science turns out to have been wildly pessimistic. “They’ll be looking at some new data,” says Odlin. “Maybe we won’t have to go as far [with cuts] as we think we have to go.”

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