Fall Study of Cod Affirms Troubled State of Fishery

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

A survey of fish stocks completed last fall and released this month by the National Marine Fisheries Service continues to identify Atlantic cod as a depleted resource in need of help.

The cod was once the fish of choice in fish markets across New England.

But despite severe cuts in fishing efforts and the closing of large areas of Georges Bank and waters southeast of Martha's Vineyard, signs of recovery are lacking.

Russell Brown, a chief scientist with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, said the scarcity of cod on Georges Bank in the fall survey is a trend that has remained unchanged over the last four years.

"We don't see widespread distribution of the fish like we did when there was higher abundance," Mr. Brown said.

The survey was done in September and October. Even though the fisheries scientists used a fine mesh net and repeatedly took sample tows day and night across the area they found no cod from Montauk Point, all the way to the Nantucket Shoal buoy. The survey included the waters off Block Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

The largest concentration of cod was found on the Canadian side of the Hague Line, which is the northeastern edge of Georges Bank. The scientists also found cod in the Gulf of Maine.

Mr. Brown qualified the survey results by saying that cod are normally caught at the end of summer in cool waters. Cod are a cold-water fish.

Yet, had there been an abundant population of cod, the stocks would have been better distributed in the region.

If a fishermen had been allowed to look for cod last fall on Georges Bank or around Martha's Vineyard, he wouldn't have found many.

Cod, along with a host of other species, are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council. The council is under harsh criticism for failing to reduce fishing with new more restrictive management measures.

John Pappalardo, a member of the council from Chatham, said this week he is frustrated over management efforts to bring cod back. "I think there are people who deep down don't believe they can bring the fish back," he said.

"Everyone wants a magic bullet. Part of the fix has to be a reduction, a comprehensive reduction in the capacity and number of participants," Mr. Pappalardo said.

Mr. Pappalardo said ruling fishermen by regulation is too unfair. He wants to see the federal government step up to the plate and help fishermen get out of the business through a buy-out program. "Now we are regulating fishermen on the margins of their business. They are at the edge of the cliff. Each thing we do, we push people off the cliff."

David Pierce, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is also a member of the council. He is optimistic that cod will be brought back and that there is good science to prove it.

"The Gulf of Maine is improving. Georges Bank is a different story. I understand there are some positive signs, but it will remain fairly severe for at least the next five years.

"I think the council has taken significant steps over the last several years to reverse the decline and hopefully the fish will come back," Mr. Pierce said.

Conservation organizations meanwhile are calling for more restrictive measures and dispute the argument that the fisheries council has done enough.

"We are extremely concerned about cod. The recent stock assessment that came out last August and the fall survey suggest cod is on the verge of collapse," said Priscilla Brooks of the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-based organization. "We are not seeing conditions improve and that is very troubling. We need to do anything humanely possible to bring those stocks back."

As much as 6,600 square miles of Georges Bank, about a third, is already closed to fishermen. Fishermen are also limited to pursuing cod or other groundfish to 50 days a year.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez took emergency action to further reduce fishing in the region. He came forward with a number of restrictive proposals that could be adopted by the May 1 start of the 2006 fisheries management season.

This week, Mayor Scott W. Lang of New Bedford went to Washington, D.C. this week to ask federal fisheries officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to seek alternatives to the proposed regulations.

And Paul J. Diodati, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, wrote a letter March 8 to Patricia A. Kurkul, the regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, charging that impact of the regulations is far in excess of what needs to be done.

For decades, the National Marine Fisheries Service has conducted a survey twice a year of the waters off the Atlantic seaboard. The fall survey was conducted by the 187-foot Research Vessel Albatross IV.

"In general the survey is extremely valuable tool for understanding the status of the stocks, how successful they are rebuilding. I think we are always hopeful," Mr. Brown said.

Another survey is to be conducted next month. Mr. Brown said: "I am cheering for the fishing, hoping that we will detect a new year class." That year class is comprised of fish spawned this year.

"With some of these populations of fish we have to be patient. We spent 25 to 30 years over exploiting these populations and we need to be patient about their recovery."

Mr. Brown recalled that in 1995 there was an assessment on haddock that was poor. At that time the estimate of haddock offshore was 10,000 metric tons.

"That was a historical low point for haddock, he said. "At that time members of the fishery council felt that we couldn't rebuild the stocks to 80,000 metric tons. My position back then was until we try to reduce the fishing mortality, we will never know if it is possible.

"Currently, the stock of haddock is in excess of 120,000 metric tons and still rebuilding," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Pappalardo, a member of the council for four years, remains skeptical about management efforts.

"It is very difficult," he said. "It seems like just about every resource we manage is either stable or are declining."