November 15, 2011
Scientists Surprise Fishermen with Talk of Cod Collapse
by Craig Idlebrook
In 2008, a NOAA assessment of the cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine gave groundfishermen cause for hope. The cod stocks, which had been heavily overfished in the 80s and 90s, were showing strong signs of recovery. Cod numbers were stronger than they had been in three decades, according to the assessment, and recovery seemed reachable by 2014. The report caused many Maine fishermen to believe they could count on cod in the coming years, said Ben Martens, policy director of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association.
“People build business plans around that,” Martens said.
But a lot may have changed in the last three years. In a recent NOAA cod stock assessment working group meeting, scientists revealed data showing the fishery has collapsed. If the assessment is accurate, there is no chance cod numbers will recover to meet the 2014 recovery target, even if the fishery is closed completely. While this assessment is only a preliminary interpretation of the data, it is enough to cause groundfishermen to hold their collective breaths and brace for the worst.
“It’s really hard to say, ‘Where do you go from here?’ because you don’t know where ‘here’ is yet,” said Hank Soule, manager of the Sustainable Harvest groundfish sector.
Every three years, NOAA reassesses a fishery using survey numbers and environmental indicators. The numbers are debated and interpreted by an initial team of scientists; the findings then are peer-reviewed before being accepted. A final report is compiled with recommendations of how to manage the stocks in the coming years.
Last month, the fishing community grew alarmed by the initial interpretation of the health of the cod fishery. According to Patricia Fiorelli, a spokeswoman for the New England Fishery Management Council, cod numbers appear to be “dramatically lower than anyone expected.”
It was believed the cod were on pace to recover, and would be helped by the switch to sector fishing. Scientists hoped that sectors would reduce the number of cod caught and discarded as bycatch under the old days-at-sea and trip-limits systems. But if the numbers of the preliminary assessment prove correct, then the prevailing assumptions are wrong.
“If this is true, we’ll have to take action, which will be complicated,” said Fiorelli.
Most scientists don’t want to speculate publically about the initial assessment until the information has been thoroughly vetted, said Fiorelli. A secondary review will take place from November 29 until December 2 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Theories abound about why the stock may have collapsed, ranging from illegal fishing to an increase in water temperature, Fiorelli said.
Stock assessments are never a sure thing, said Steve Cadrin, an UMass associate professor of marine science and technology who is on assessment committee. Funds for studying fisheries are limited, and there still are so many unknowns and variables to juggle, he said. Some past predictions of a fishery’s recovery have been accurate, and some have been off. The cod fishery in Atlantic Canada has been closed for some time, yet the cod population is not rebounding.
“The nature of fishery science is to manage fisheries with inexact information,” said Cadrin.
But such a lurch in an assessment from recovery to collapse is sure to deal a blow to close-to-shore groundfishermen in Maine, said Martens. Many of his association’s members rely on cod over other fish species, especially since the fish commanded $2.50 a pound in 2011. Some of the association’s members already have been buffeted by the instability of the northern shrimp fishing season, which closed early in the last two years and faces a quota cut in half in the coming season. Now, they may have to contend with not being able to count on cod, as well, Martens said.
Sector management gives ground fishermen more flexibility than in the past to target multiple species, but a closure of the cod fishery could mean that fishermen may need to invest in gear that would allow cod to swim free, said Martens. Offshore groundfishermen in the gulf already have this gear, but most Maine fishermen who fish close to shore do not.
“Everybody was doing what science told us to do, and science came back and told us they were wrong,” Martens said.
More Environment Articles
by Philip Conkling February 25, 2014
by Tom Groening February 18, 2014
by Philip Conkling February 12, 2014
by Staff Writer February 7, 2014
More Marine Articles
by Staff Writer March 7, 2014
by Staff Writer March 6, 2014
by Tom Groening March 5, 2014
by Staff Writer February 26, 2014