The New England Fishery Management Council dramatically cut landing limits on cod and yellowtail flounder last week for the coming year. Meeting in Portsmouth, N.H. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, the council voted on a plan to reduce the landings of cod in the Gulf of Maine by as much as 77 per cent from the 2012 quota for the next three years, and to cut the landing of Georges Bank cod by 61 per cent from the 2012 quota.
Once the most common fish in the waters around New England, the cod numbers are now so low that they are teetering on the edge of extinction, officials said. To prevent further decline and hopefully restore the stocks, the council voted to impose deep restrictions on the catching of these fish beginning on May 1.
Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Council, told the Gazette this week it was a difficult process.
“I continue to think it was a tough decision to make,” he said. “Given the circumstances, I think the council made the right decision. The council understands that when they make their decision there are real people that are going to be impacted. I certainly hope everyone is thinking that we have to do a balance between mitigating short-term impacts to the fishermen and the long-term impacts to the resource.”
The greater worry, Mr. Cunningham said, is whether these cuts are enough or too late to make a difference. Newfoundland has had a moratorium on the catching of cod in place for 20 years and the fish, still in low numbers, are only now slowly starting to show recovery.
“There is a part of me that is saying we may be seeing an environmental change that is happening, that is changing faster than we thought. I remain concerned that the stocks are in such low level . . . it may be very hard or impossible to bring them back,” Mr. Cunningham said.
At the council hearing, fishermen testified that the cuts being made would ruin their industry.
David Pierce, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, has been a voting member of the council, watching and making decisions for more than 12 years. Mr. Pierce voted against the motion to reduce the catch. “It was perhaps the most difficult decision made by the council because of the implications. Very likely it will shut down the entire Gulf of Maine fishery and impact all the groundfishermen, most of them in small vessels.”
Mr. Pierce said the reduction was too catastrophic for the fishermen. “We realize that cod is in trouble on the Gulf of Maine and on Georges, but the industry is in trouble, too. The inshore fishery is in trouble.”
The scientific evidence of how much of a decline in cod is dramatic. Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service believe that the cod population on Georges is seven per cent of what should be out there.
Mike Armstrong, an assistant director for the Division of Marine Fisheries, said this week that two years ago: “We studied a large aggregation of cod that were three miles off-shore. The aggregation was right off Gloucester. You could drop a jig on the backs of them, there were so many. Last year we saw a tremendous drop. We are not sure they are coming back.”
“This is probably the biggest disaster in my career,” Mr. Armstrong said. “This is not just the decline of the cod, it is the whole fabric of the fishing industry.”
At an earlier council meeting, officials also discussed opening offshore fishing grounds that have been closed for almost two decades. The closest protected area to the Vineyard is called the Nantucket Lightship. This is a large shoal southeast of Nantucket that has been closed to protect juvenile stocks for many years.
“The message that came out of the council meeting,” Mr. Pierce said, “is that sector managers can fish the closed areas as long as they don’t go into the habitat areas. Only the northeast portion of the closed area is considered for habitat. Everything else would be open.”
Whether to allow fishing in the closed area will be subject to a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the months ahead. Mr. Pierce said it is likely these areas will be opened.
A number of conservation groups oppose the re-opening of portions of these closed areas. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Northeast Fisheries Program with the Pew Environment Group are publicly opposed.
Mr. Cunningham has his own concern. “We hear a lot of people talking about the closed areas. Obviously, we’ve heard that the closed areas haven’t done anything. They haven’t rebuilt the stocks. If you look at the confidence around the science, I take another look. The stocks might have already collapsed if we didn’t have those closed areas,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Next summer Vineyard fishermen could expect to see a lot more fishermen in the region shifting their efforts to these waters, Mr. Pierce said.
“These fishermen who can’t fish the Gulf of Maine for cod aren’t going to disappear. They will likely go somewhere else,” he said. “If they have the permits, and most of them do, they will fish other fisheries.”
Of Vineyard waters, Mr. Pierce said: “You will see new faces out there.”