Cod catch limits could be cut up to 82 percent

Posted Jan. 22, 2013, at 7 p.m.

Landings of inshore or Gulf of Maine cod, already cut by 22 percent for the 2012 fishing year that ends April 30, could be further reduced by between 76.8 percent and 82.6 percent for each of the next three years, according to an announcement today by NOAA’s New England Regional Fishery Management Council.

Landings of Georges Bank cod were also projected to be reduced by 60 percent for the 2013 fishing year that begins May 1.

Maine fishermen landed slightly more than 800,000 pounds of cod in 2011, a decreased from the 2.9 million pounds landed in Maine in 2001, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The projected cuts in fishermen’s landing limits for the new season come after a new assessment of Gulf of Maine and Geoges Bank cod stocks, which has not changed NOAA’s scientific opinion of the dire condition of the most essential target of groundfishermen based in New England.

The discouraging data was based on an an extraordinary assessment of the stocks undertaken amid a crisis that threatens the survival of the Northeast groundfishery, which was declared an economic “disaster” by the acting commerce secretary last September based on socio-economic studies submitted by Gov. Deval Patrick in November 2011. The 112th Congress ended Jan. 3 after deleting a $100 million fishery disaster relief provision from a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief appropriation that would have provided aid to the fishing industry.

The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition has argued that NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard has the authority to scale back the extreme cutbacks in inshore cod landings by implementing a second year of interim emergency catch limits, and has called upon him to do so.

The 22 percent reduction for the current year traces to NOAA’s decision that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows the agency to suspend stock rebuilding for limited periods.

“Based on recent reports developed by fisheries scientists and peer reviewed by independent experts, there is little good news about the health of cod stocks in the Northeast,” the New England Fishery Management Council said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. “The reports, developed during two separate stock assessments held in December and released last week provide an update to the information received a year ago by fishery managers and fishermen alike about the poor condition of Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod.”

Spring and fall trawl survey data from 2012 was not factored into the new assessment, and the inshore surveys were among the worst ever recorded, so, if anything, the council release said, “the projections are likely to be optimistic.”

“The information in the report about Georges Bank cod was similarly negative,” the council’s statement indicated. “The last above average year class was 1991.”

The peer-reviewed assessment will be the subject of a meeting Wednesday in Boston of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, which will set the acceptable biological catch limits. Those will be the theoretical greatest weight of landings for the stocks, from which the council will formulate its allowable catch limits at a Jan. 30 session in Portsmouth, N.H.

Bullard has not revealed whether he agrees with the coalition that the law gives NOAA the latitude to give the industry a second year of grace in catch limits.

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