The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) has filed a petition demanding that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Secretary of Commerce take immediate action to end overfishing of Atlantic cod by removing management oversight of the fish out of the hands of the New England Fishery Management Council.
What does that mean? And what could be the impacts on Maine’s fishermen?
Background: Cod are one of nine different species that make up the allocated New England groundfish fishery. Historically, cod was the most important groundfish caught in the Gulf of Maine, but populations have declined dramatically forcing fishermen and consumers to target other species like haddock, pollock, and hake.
According to the best available science from NOAA fisheries, Gulf of Maine cod populations are at just 6% to 9% of the spawning stock size considered healthy and sustainable, and Georges Bank cod is considered to be at 7% of its spawning stock goal.
The 88-page document CLF filed as a petition to NMFS and the Secretary of Commerce documents much of the history of this fishery, but the justification for the request is heavily focused on the last ten years of management. Since the creation of the Magnuson Stevens Act in 1976, regional councils that are made up of stakeholders, state officials and federal representatives, develop the regulations that govern our local fisheries through a collaborative and inclusive process. The argument from CLF is that:
“Short-term economic interests has dominated decisions by the New England Fishery Management Council, which has long ignored scientific concerns and sets catch limits for Atlantic cod using: (1) inaccurate catch data; (2) an arbitrary control rule process that does not reliably end overfishing; and (3) repeatedly overly optimistic interpretations of stock assessment models that routinely underestimate fishing mortality and overestimate stock biomass and produce growth projections that have not materialized.”
The CLF petition to the Department of Commerce seeks to initiate a Secretarial Amendment that would take management of the fishery out of the hands of the NEFMC and put management measures in place to immediately end overfishing of Atlantic cod though an emergency action.
This may include 100% monitoring, the prohibition of commercial and recreational landings of cod, area closures, and gear restrictions.
What does this mean for Maine fishermen?
Right now, nothing. The Secretary of Commerce needs to review this petition and then decide if he would like to act on it. There was a previous petition that was similar to this in 2015 which was denied. While the stock assessments are projected to be worse for 2020, the New England Fishery Management Council is in the final stages of an accountability amendment which has 100% monitoring as the preferred alternative currently in the document. My initial read is that the secretary will say that the Council is reacting appropriately to the condition of the stock and not be willing to intervene. Having the Secretary take over a regionally managed stock is a significant step and would have a profound impact on fisheries management not just in Maine but throughout the country.
That being said, if this petition is denied, there may be grounds for a lawsuit and if that lawsuit ends up in the hands of a judge, it is often unclear what the courts will do in any given case. This would be the worst case scenario for local Maine fishermen.
If the Secretary of Commerce decides to act on this request, the quickest solution to address the problem identified by CLF would be a combination of monitoring and closures. Those closures would be based upon previous catch data (which CLF has stated throughout the document as being flawed) and will have profound impacts on inshore fishermen. Fishermen are already trying to avoid cod, so if they can't go where pollock, hake, redfish, and haddock are, it could be very hard for small boats to survive. The reason I would suggest this is the most likely outcome if there was action taken is because this was the action taken by NMFS when the science first showed massive declines in the cod populations. For a short period of time, chunks of the ocean were closed and a trip limit for catch was put in place.
What do the fishermen think?
Cod isn’t in good shape, that is clear. But reports from fishermen indicate greater abundant than what science is showing managers. The Science Center in Woods Hole MA has said that there are problems with the trawl survey, but we are yet to see solutions put forward to address the discrepancies between what fishermen are seeing on the water and what is being caught by survey boats in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Many fishermen and managers believe that the current survey and stock assessment process are over-sampling some stocks and under-sampling others leading to discrepancies. We would encourage more time, energy and resources to be put into correcting the scientific data (which includes comprehensive monitoring, updating the trawl survey, and correcting models that are outdated)
For the Consumer. Is it OK to eat cod?
OF COURSE! While CLF is pushing for much more restrictive measures on catch, no fishermen in the Gulf of Maine are targeting cod as part of their business. If you see local cod from the Gulf of Maine on the menu, it is because a fisherman caught it while trying to catch other fish. Fishermen are required to land those cod according to regulations, and had to pay $2.00/lb on an allocation lease it, so ensuring that they can make some money on that catch is crucial to supporting local fishermen.
There are lots of great local options for local flaky white fish but you shouldn’t be shy about buying codfish if that is what you wnat to eat. If it is in a restaurant or local market that means that it has been counted, is part of the stock assessment, and is part of the solution that will help make sure scientists and managers have the best data available to rebuild this fishery.
Got a question? Post it in the comments.