Cod limit sliced by 22% April 3,2012

NOAA action sets level at bottom of the range sought by regional council

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has set an interim 2012 catch limit of 6,700 metric tons for Gulf of Maine cod for the fishing year that’s set to begin May 1 — essentially affirming the lower end of the range recommended in February by the New England Fishery Management Council.

The announcement — coming Monday as NOAA, the council and the fishing industry all wrestle with the findings of a 2010 assessment that showed dramatically lower levels of Gulf of Maine cod stocks than had been reported in 2008 — sets the limit 22 percent below the current limit of 8,500 metric tons.

The figure is, however, higher than limit of 4,000 metric tons that had been sought by the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the leading fishery environmental nonprofit groups.

The New England Fishery Management Council had urged an interim limit of between 6,700 metric tons and 7,500 metric tons, and Commerce Secretary John Bryson had indicated in February that he thought NOAA would be willing to go along with at least the 6,700 metric ton figure.

NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Sues said Monday that her agency had initially thought the limit would have to be as low as 1,300 metric tons, given that NOAA is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to eliminate overfishing of the Gulf of Maine cod within a strict deadline. The assessment that NOAA is using would dictate limits as low as 1,100 to eliminate overfishing within the Magnuson-Stevens time frame.

Mooney-Seus said that “(6,700) is the only number in the range that allows us to reduce overfishing.”

"If we had to put in the measures right away," she added, "we would have had to make an 80 percent cut."

The new interim limits will be in effect until April 30, 2013, and Mooney-Sues warned that next year’s limit will likely be far lower.

"We had a one-year reprieve. What this did this year was to allow fishermen some time," said Mooney-Sues.

"It’s better than it could have been, but there are still people who will be impacted by this," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.

Odell said she understood that, if one takes the most recent stock assessment at face value, cod seem to be dramatically overfished, and that something needs to be done. But she noted that the industry continues to have serious credibility issues with the assessment, and added that drastic solutions should wait until people can be sure the science is sound.

"There are different elements in this assessment that are hard to believe," said Odell.

"It’s nothing personal, but either the new assessment is dead wrong or the old assessment was dead wrong," she added. "There are a number of crucial scientific questions that must be answered and we hope everyone involved will make a positive commitment to continually improving our scientific understanding of this vital stock."

Mooney-Sues said that while NOAA is unlikely to order a new stock assessment, the agency would be willing to take new information into account.

"We did agree to revisit the stock assessment in order to inform 2013," said Mooney-Sues, but she cautioned that lower limits in 2013 are most likely inevitable.

Stephanie Bergman can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or sbergman@gloucestertimes.com.