PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Fishermen, scientists and rulemakers gathered Friday in New Hampshire to discuss an unexpectedly dire assessment of the health of Gulf of Maine cod and seek ways the fishing industry can weather it.
The new report is a reversal of a 2008 study that indicated cod was strong and getting stronger after years of struggle and tight fishing restrictions. But the preliminary new data suggest cod is in fact heavily overfished and won’t rebuild by the 2014 deadline set by federal law, even if fishermen were stopped from catching a single cod.
A total shutdown on cod fishing to protect the species is the worst case-scenario, but even severe cuts could devastate the fishing industry in ports from the tip of Cape Cod to northern Maine, where the species is crucial to the small boat fishermen who catch cod during day trips.
Last year, fishermen caught about $15.8 million worth of cod, the second-largest haul behind Georges Bank haddock among the region’s 20 regulated bottom-dwelling fish.
Eric Schwaab, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service, flew up from Washington to attend Friday’s meeting, which his agency helped pull together in the last few weeks.
“From our perspective it was very important … to confront this issue head on,” Schwaab said.
Fishermen have been deeply skeptical of the new data, saying the dismal outlook contradicts what they’re seeing on the water, where they say cod is abundant and being caught over an ever-larger area.
New Hampshire fisherman David Goethel called the numbers “entirely erroneous,” and said if the estimates are correct, then he caught more than 1 percent of all the 9-year-old cod in the Gulf of Maine during a recent 30-minute tow.
“If we want to do something about Gulf of Maine cod, you better stop me from fishing,” he said with sarcasm, drawing chuckles from the audience.
Federal scientist Chris Legault detailed why the assessment changed drastically. He said a primary reason is that scientists initially estimated 2005 was an exceptionally strong year for cod reproduction, but that the appraisal has proven wrong in the last three years.
He noted the new data, though preliminary, have held up to robust initial review.
“We don’t know the exact numbers, but we know the news is bad and if we can focus on how to move forward from that, I think we’ll be better off,” he said.