PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Fishery officials bought time for New England fishermen on Wednesday, asking federal regulators to take an emergency step to avoid ruinous cuts in the Gulf of Maine cod catch this year.
But the move still left fishermen looking at significant catch reductions some said would destroy their businesses.
Members of the New England Fishery Management Council asked federal regulators to adopt an emergency interim rule, which removes the law’s requirement to immediately “end” overfishing on Gulf of Maine cod. To do that, fishermen were looking at a 90 percent cut in their catch, which would have wiped out fishing businesses from the tip of Cape Cod to northern Maine.
Now, regulators are instead required to “reduce” overfishing on the cod — a far lower standard than to end it — while they try to better understand what’s happening with the prized species, which was thought to be rebounding just months ago.
The change removes the immediate pressure on regulators trying to protect the cod, allowing them to adopt far less severe restrictions for the May 1 start of the 2012 fishing year.
Still, major cuts are coming this year if federal regulators agree to adopt the interim rule, which they have indicated they will do. The council recommended Wednesday that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allow them to catch between 6,700 metric tons and 7,500 metric tons of cod in the 2012 fishing year. That’s a minimum 12 percent and maximum 22 percent reduction in what fishermen were allowed to catch in the 2011 fishing year.
NOAA must still decide whether to accept that recommendation, and determine what number on that range they would choose.
Gloucester fisherman Vito Giacalone said any cut means the end of fishing jobs.
“Any reduction is going to equal loss of business, there’s just no way around it,” said Giacalone, of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group.
The interim rule would ease catch restrictions for just a year. After that, the tougher requirement to end overfishing kicks back in, and fishermen will again in 2013 be looking at the catastrophic cuts they avoided Wednesday.
Fishermen and industry advocates urged scientists and regulators to do whatever they can, as soon as they can, to improve fishery science and resolve questions about the recent cod assessment, which many fishermen say far underestimated how many cod are in the ocean.
“We’ve got a year before everything collapses,” said council member David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman.
After the meeting, acting NOAA Fisheries head Sam Rauch announced that regulators would hold another meeting Feb. 10 to further discuss ways to deal with the cod problem.
“Both NOAA and the council recognize the devastating impact this would have on fishermen and fishing communities and we are committed to looking for a different way forward,” he said.
Besides being a local cultural icon — a carved “sacred cod” hangs in the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives — the cod is crucial to local fishing businesses. Gulf of Maine cod brought in $15.8 million in 2010, second highest amount behind Georges Bank haddock among the region’s 20 regulated bottom-dwelling groundfish.
Putting onerous restrictions on the cod catch also severely limits fishing on the other key groundfish species, in order to protect the cod they swim among.
Until late last year, Gulf of Maine was considered a fishery management success story, with the fish healthy and growing, according to a 2008 report. But the new data indicated cod was, in fact, severely overfished, and the species wouldn’t rebound by 2014 to levels required under federal law, even if fishermen didn’t catch one more fish until then.
Regulators say their 2008 study was so far off largely because it vastly overestimated how many young cod were born into the fishery three years earlier. But they say the most recent data is solid.
“My question is, why should we believe you now?” Goethel asked.
Gloucester state Sen. Bruce Tarr said the wild swings in the scientific projections are nothing new to fishermen, and said it shows the science behind the fishery regulations is deeply flawed.
“The best science to manage this fishery is nothing of the sort,” he said. “We do face a crisis. But the crisis is not on a deck of a fishing boat. … The crisis is on the desk of a scientist.”