BOSTON — In an industry where agreement comes slowly, the sudden prospect of huge fishing cuts to protect New England’s codfish inspired a quick consensus: Scores of fishermen will be ruined if those cuts are passed.
But it’s not clear how, or if, that pain can be avoided, weeks after new scientific numbers indicated cod in the Gulf of Maine is much weaker than thought.
“We really haven’t heard of something that works right now,” said Gib Brogan, of the environmental group Oceana.
Fishery science and law present major obstacles to preserving both cod and fishermen.
The law requires scientists to set a limit on how hard fishermen can fish for any species. If they exceed it, they’re illegally overfishing and regulators are charged with “immediately” stopping it. That means, given the grim new estimate of cod’s health, fishermen would have to accept a debilitating cut of about 90 percent in their cod catch next year, and there’s little wiggle room to avoid it.
Meanwhile, the new data — though attacked from the outset by skeptical fishermen — has survived an initial review, and scientists say it likely won’t change much. Several lawmakers, starting with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, are now asking the U.S. Commerce Secretary to order a new assessment of the cod’s health in hopes of getting better data, but prospects are uncertain.
Still, there’s optimism a solution can be found, if only because the alternative is devastating cuts that could sweep away remaining fishermen from Provincetown to northern Maine.
“I’m not a betting man, but I’m optimistic to a fault,” said fisheries scientist Steve Cadrin, who works at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He added, “Someone up high [in government] is going to have to make a bold move to allow a common-sense solution.”
For centuries, Gulf of Maine cod has been the key species for small-boat fishermen on day trips from northern New England ports, including historic Gloucester. In 2010, cod brought in $15.8 million, second-most among the valuable bottom-dwelling groundfish species fishermen have long chased, such as flounder and haddock.
Cod’s future looked great in 2008, when a major assessment indicated the Gulf of Maine species was headed for full recovery.
But the new data, released this fall, said cod was actually so badly overfished that even if fishermen completely stop catching it, it can’t recover to a federally mandated level of abundance by a 2014 deadline.
The new numbers are still being verified. If they hold up, onerous cutbacks on the cod catch are certain, and that would also mean tight limits on many other valuable groundfish off New England, to protect the cod that swim among them.
But cod aren’t scarce and anyone who fishes the Gulf of Maine knows it, New Hampshire fishermen David Goethel said. He said the gap between the new estimate and reality demands a complete reworking of the new cod assessment, just as lawmakers have requested. That includes rethinking the numerous assumptions that go into the various population models, including such complexities as how well the federal boat that catches fish population samples scoops up older cod.
“We need a do-over,” Goethel said.
Absent new science that leads to a drastically different outlook for cod, another hope is that regulators will interpret fishery law differently than they ever have.
Right now, fishermen are boxed in by the requirement to stay under that maximum rate at which they can catch codfish without overfishing it.
In essence, the rate allows fishermen to haul home a safe fraction of a species. But in the case of Gulf of Maine cod, the new stock estimate is so low that that fraction shrinks to a pittance the fishing industry can’t survive on. And since the rate is determined by such basic biological factors as a species’ growth, reproductive and natural death rates, political pressure can’t do much to budge it.
But Cadrin sees one possibility for fishermen to get some help. He hopes for new flexibility in how regulators react after they determine there’s overfishing on cod.
He said that regulators have traditionally acted as if the law requires them to “immediately” stop overfishing on any species, but the actual law doesn’t require that — the word “immediately” is contained in a guideline to the law. Cadrin said if fishery managers want to be bold, they could give fishermen a short amount of time to stop overfishing, rather than “immediately” enforcing lethal restrictions when the new fishing year starts in May. More time would mean less severe cuts now, and a chance for more fishermen to survive.
There is some sign from the top levels of U.S. fishery management that regulators are ready to do something different about codfish, even if they don’t know what.
At a quickly called meeting last month to deal with the cod crisis, Eric Schwaab, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service spoke of undiscovered solutions outside the traditional channels of government bureaucracy.
The situation is so serious, Schwaab said, “those kind of extraordinary options ought to be on the table.”