Another Hard Year Ahead for Cod and Cod Fishermen

Allison Lorenc

May 1 marked the start of the 2016 fishing year, which means new regulations for New England’s fisheries and fishermen. Just days before the season opening, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved new catch limits for the 20 groundfish stocks managed by the agency, including Atlantic cod. The catch limits are part of new rules, known as Framework Adjustment 55, that fishermen will have to follow through the 2018 season.

Also just in time for the start of this year’s season, NOAA Fisheries released its 2015 Status of the Stocks, an annual report to the U.S. Congress. The report revealed a general lack of improvement for our fisheries around the nation over the last year. The news was especially bad for New England – 25 percent of the stocks on the “overfishing” list and about 37 percent of the stocks on the “overfished” list are fish found primarily in our regional waters. Such poor results are unacceptable and we must all be on watch to ensure they do not become a worsening trend.

Catch limits fail to reflect cod’s dire circumstances

The new catch limits implemented for this new fishing year represent dramatic cuts for many stocks. Limits for Georges Bank cod, for example, were slashed 62 percent from 2015 limits.

But is this enough? Last year, a stock assessment for Georges Bank cod indicated that the population may be as low as roughly 1 percent of the level scientists agree is sustainable for fishing. The New England Fishery Management Council, the regional agency charged with overseeing our regional fishing fleets, ultimately rejected this data outright, claiming it was flawed. But even if that 1 percent number is incorrect, it doesn’t mean that cod populations are at sustainable levels. As the latest Status of the Stocks reports, Georges Bank cod remain overfished with overfishing occurring.

And things for the Gulf of Maine cod stock aren’t much better. This population also remains overfished with overfishing occurring, according to the NOAA report. In 2014, research revealed that Gulf of Maine cod stocks were only about 3 to 4 percent of their target level, forcing NOAA to implement emergency action in order to prevent a further plummet. Now, barely a year later, NOAA approved a 30 percent increase for the Gulf of Maine cod catch limit.

Too much too soon? We think so.

Lowering at-sea monitoring coverage is counterintuitive

Framework 55 also reduced at-sea monitoring coverage from 24 percent of commercial groundfishing boats to just 14 percent for the 2016 fishing year. This might look like a stroke of good luck for fishermen who have long railed against the monitoring program, but it’s the opposite of what’s needed for a fishery facing strict catch limits.

In a region with a history of overfishing (a history that our fishery managers apparently aren’t willing to rectify any time soon), the only way to ensure accurate tracking of a fishery’s catch is to implement full and comprehensive monitoring. Without it, we’re walking blindly into a future where we become complacent to the terms “overfishing” and “overfished” – and where our most iconic fisheries become mere legends of the past rather economic drivers of our coastal economy.

There’s no question in our minds that this “stroke of good luck” for fishermen is nothing but a bad omen for the fish we depend on – with long-term consequences for all.

The Downward Spiral of a Legacy

In a perfect world, fish would be a limitless resource – but it has been a long time since we could “walk on the backs of cod” in New England. Sadly, it seems that we may never return to those days, but if we want to have any shot at helping our cod stocks instead of continuing to exploit them, the risky management decisions need to end.

Conservation Law Foundation has always advocated for fishery management decisions based on sound science that serves to protect our fishery resources. We attend management council meetings, we analyze and submit public comment on council actions, and we seek to inform New Englanders about important fishery issues that affect our entire region. In fishing year 2016 and on, we will not stop fighting for sustainable fisheries that boost our region’s economy and preserve New England’s cultural legacy as a region that values our ocean resources and the way of life that we have built around them.

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