The battle over the validity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fish stock assessments that continually have led to slashed groundfish quotas has reached a higher pitch, with mounting calls for a third-party assessment of the manner NOAA assesses fish stocks.

Under questioning by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, on Wednesday, NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan defended the accuracy of the agency’s fish stock assessments, saying she would welcome a third-party review of the agency’s methods and performance in arriving at the science that serves as the basis for the federal government’s fishery management policies.

Ayotte’s questioning largely stemmed from the Northeast Seafood Coalition-sponsored petition proclaiming no confidence “in the stock status reported by recent assessments for many groundfish stocks” and seeking a third-party review of NOAA’s methods and results.

The petition urged the formation of a “blue ribbon panel of assessment scientists,” which would include government, academic and industry leaders and be coordinated by either the National Research Council or the U.S. Government Accountability Office “to determine the underlying causes of assessment failures.”

The petition also seeks binding recommendations from the blue ribbon panel “to correct those causes in a transparent and collaborative manner and in time for the updated review scheduled for all groundfish stocks this coming September.”

The petition, signed by nearly 150 fishermen from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia, was sent to 14 U.S. senators and 20 members of the House of Representatives.

Ayotte pointed out to Sullivan that the 75 percent cut in cod allocation enacted into the rules governing the 2015 fishing season brings the cumulative quota cut in the last five years to 95 percent.

“I do not know of a business that could take a 95 percent cut and continue to operate,” she told Sullivan at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing on “Improvements and Innovations in Fishery Management and Data Collection.”

Ayotte also referred to the element of the Magnuson-Steven Act that says NOAA must “not only look at the strength of the fishery, but look at the economic impact to those who make a living on the water.”

Sullivan defended NOAA reaction to last summer’s unpublicized and surprise Gulf of Maine cod assessment that showed the stock to be in even worse shape than previously believed, hovering at only about 3 percent of its sustainable biomass.

“We’re gravely concerned about this stock,” Sullivan said. “We’re concerned about its capability to recover at this point. That’s the driving factor.”

Ayotte asked Sullivan if she would “object to a blue ribbon panel of scientists looking at the assessment?”

“We subject our assessment processes to independent review all the time and have no fear of subjecting it to independent review,” Sullivan replied.

“So even if it was an examination by the NRC and GAO?” Ayotte asked. “Would you object to that?”

“We’ve had them done by those bodies before,” Sullivan said.

The petition also reiterated that the results of NOAA’s cod assessment run counter to what fishermen are seeing on the water, where they are reporting large amounts of cod throughout the Gulf of Maine, including the inshore waters generally fished by the Gloucester day-boat fleet.

“Fishermen have little faith in what is being reported,” Northeast Seafood Coalition Executive Director Jackie Odell said Thursday. “They haul their gear and see fish that the assessments report don’t exist. This includes inshore, offshore and in deep water, and not condensed in critical masses or aggregated in the manner NOAA has reported.

“For the last year alone, fishermen have been intentionally steaming away — avoiding fish — simply because the allocations are set so low based on these scientific findings. Not because the fish are not there.”

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