The Death of Atlantic Cod: The Convenience of Denial

Peter Shelley | @peashell47

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineAtlantic cod’s future in New England is overshadowed with existential dread. With so many opinions flying around about what the “science” says or what the fishermen “see,” trying to make sense of what is going on with Atlantic cod with any precision seems a fool’s errand. However, we must not fall victim to the convenience of denial. If anything, recent cod stock assessment shadows have only darkened.

In August, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a NOAA entity charged with conducting ecosystem-based research and assessments of fish stocks and other marine resources to promote their recovery and long-term sustainability, completed a series of “operational assessments” for 20 groundfish stocks. The purpose of these quick assessments was to shed light on changes in stock status in the time between major stock assessment reviews, which typically happen every 1 to 3 years.

The news was not good for a number of stocks. The assessments show that, of the 20 stocks the Science Center reviewed, at least 8 groundfish populations are either in worse condition or are still not showing any recovery, despite mandated catch reductions (such as those implemented for Gulf of Maine cod). Furthermore, there are now seven assessment models that they say have “diagnostic problems,” adding a level of uncertainty about the data.

The Science Center determined Georges Bank cod populations were at an unfathomable 1% of where they should be and that 2014 fishing pressure was estimated to be 994% higher than the overfishing limit. In other words, to ensure the population of cod in a given area is sustainable, the estimated numbers of cod should be 100 times higher than what the models estimate is actually in the water – a deplorable condition made all the more troubling given the intense fishing pressure estimated on this species.

After a quick peer review, however, the New England Fishery Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee (SSC) threw out the Science Center’s assessment model, deeming the Georges Bank cod models now so unreliable that they were unusable for management advice.

Rejecting the Georges Bank cod models conveniently means the Council can move another stock off the formal “overfishing” list and into the “unknown” category, but that doesn’t mean that the stock is in any less trouble. “Unknown” in this context means that the stock has gone off its scientific rails – which is not a comforting situation when that fish is Atlantic cod, the region’s most iconic fish species, and cod populations are estimated to be lower than at any point in history!

No good news

Models or not, certain fundamental signals of the severity of the current cod problem remain. All of the U.S. and Canadian Georges Bank cod surveys continue to show the lowest levels in decades. The number of juvenile cod has been below average since 1990.

Additionally, the fish from the recent trawl survey were smaller at various ages than in previous surveys, and the older, more productive cod seem to be virtually gone. And 2014 was the first year the Canadian survey didn’t catch any fish older than 8 years old and above 36” in length. Not very hopeful circumstances for a species that should be living longer than 20 years and growing to twice that size. The assessment scientists, once again, could not point to a single positive biological indicator for the species.

Why are cod so unproductive? It seems everyone has an opinion, so here’s mine: As the scientists tell us, these cod populations have been pummeled by rampant overfishing for 37 years in a row. Add to that the stresses of rapidly changing sea water temperatures, plankton crashes, increased predation on larvae and juvenile cod, and unreported discards… and you have a species on the ropes.

In this context, the Fishing Management Council Science and Statistical Committee’s recent catch advice to the managers for the upcoming fishing years with respect to Georges Bank cod seems only barely scientific. The Science and Statistical Committee recommended that 2016-2018 catch limits should be based on an average of the most recent three-year catches, reduced by the catch declines seen in the recent NOAA trawl surveys—a decrease of 24%. At the risk of exposing my mathematical limitations, isn’t that just about the same as scientifically blessing continued declines rather than making any recommendations that would reverse them?

The overfishing limits (OFL) they have recommended for both are reduced by identical “scientific uncertainty” adjustments– 25% –to produce their recommended acceptable biological catch (ABC).

Directionally, the Science and Statistical Committee’s advice for cod has some merit: catches should certainly be cut. But at a time when, one, there is such scientific uncertainty that the committee has to throw out the assessment model and, two, there is not one positive biological sign of any basis for hope of recovery, I have to ask: Are there any circumstances under which the science advisors will tell the managers that we must stop catching cod?

Apparently, not yet.

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