Federal fishery regulators announced Monday that, due to poor stock estimates, they are closing off large areas of the western Gulf of Maine to cod fishing.
The closures, which are expected to go into effect on Thursday, apply to the use of all gear that can catch cod, John Bullard, Northeast regional fisheries administrator for National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, said in a conference call Monday afternoon. This means fishing for other species with groundfish gear also will be banned in the closure areas.
Bullard said that, as of the end of October, an estimated 660 metric tons of the 1,550 metric ton quota for Gulf of Maine cod had been caught. He said that, for the 2015 season, the cod quota is expected to be cut at least to 386 metric tons and could be as low as 200 metric tons.
“It will be a significant reduction. This is a stock that is in free fall,” Bullard said of the gulf’s cod population. “Abundance is only three to four percent of levels deemed sustainable for the stock.”
He said environmental factors are believed to be responsible for the low level of recruitment, or young cod, believed to be in the gulf. The rolling closures, which will change from month to month, generally will be in areas south and east of Cape Ann in Massachusetts and off the New Hampshire coast where cod are known to aggregate. In March and April, the closures will include a large offshore area south of Boothbay Harbor.
“We believe protecting these remaining aggregations of fish provide our best chance to prevent a cod stock collapse and a complete fishery closure,” Bullard said. “We want to avoid the situation that Canada found itself in when its cod stock [on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland] collapsed in the 1990s.”
Bullard said that fishermen have been anticipating the closures that were announced Monday, and so have been putting in heavy effort in the areas that will be off-limits. This being the case, he added, there could be significant landings by the time the closures go into effect on Thursday.
Federal regulators also are banning recreational catches of cod in the gulf and, to reduce the impact of incidental catches of cod while fishermen are targeting other species, have set a 200-pound trip limit for cod.
Bullard added that, because of increases in the gulf’s haddock population, federal regulators would roughly double the 2014 quota for that species, from approximately 675,000 pounds to 1.3 million pounds, or from around 300 metric tons to 590 metric tons.
Bullard acknowledged that the increase in the haddock quota will not make up for the decrease in cod landings.
“Unfortunately, the magnitude of the necessary protection measures for cod largely offset the benefits of the haddock quota increase,” Bullard said.
Conservation groups said further steps are needed to restore and protect the gulf’s cod population to a level that can sustain continued fishing pressure.
Matt Mullin, northeast regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, said it is a “management failure” that only 20 percent of commercial fishing boats in New England are being subjected to direct government monitoring.
“We must act immediately to secure 100 percent monitoring of groundfish fishing boats and bring New England groundfish management into line with national best practice,” Mullin said in a prepared statement.
Peter Baker, director of northeast oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said in a separate prepared statement that NOAA should do more to permanently protect cod habitat.
“Known spawning areas should be sheltered, and places scientists have identified as important for cod to grow and feed should be made off-limits not just to bottom trawls but also to other fishing activities, such as scallop dredges, that are known to damage the ocean floor,” Baker said.