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NOAA Cod Stock Assessment Shakes Maine's Groundfish Industry
11/02/2011   Reported By: Josie Huang

In the groundfishing world, conventional wisdom is that Gulf of Maine cod is back. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, reported just three years ago that cod levels appeared to be improving at a time when other groundfish were still struggling. But preliminary NOAA data rocking the industry indicates that the exact opposite is happening.

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That's according to Steve Cadrin, a marine scientist working with NOAA and others on a stock assessment. "The results are now that the stock is overfished again and the stock cannot rebuild by 2014--even if no fishing is allowed," he says.

2014 is the deadline set by fisheries managers a decade ago for rebuilding Gulf of Maine cod, which has been heavily fished in New England for centuries for its white, mild flesh.

Cadrin, an associate professor of marine science at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, says that suspected overfishing by commercial and recreational fishermen alike may lead to more restrictions. "How that plays out we can't say right now--that has to go through the management process--but some very strong management actions will be needed if these results are accepted."

The results still face a peer review process later this month, but they're already alarming fishermen and fisheries managers. Pat Fiorelli is spokeswoman for the New England Fisheries Management Council, which develops regional fishing policy subject to review by federal regulators.

"I've been saying, frankly, for months that it's very close to being rebuilt, and to have a dramatic circumstance face the council--it's a little mind-boggling," Fiorelli says. "So everybody is kind of holding their breath until the final information is out."

What makes the new results so hard to fathom is that fishermen have worked hard at conservation, says Hank Soule, whose job is managing a group of some 40 fishermen who split a catch quota allocated to their so-called sector. "We've had overharvesting of codfish in the past, but there was a lot of hope that the sacrifices that fishermen have made over the last five years had finally arrested that," he sys.

Should NOAA finalize the stock assessment, Soule sees a scenario in which the deadline to rebuild cod stocks gets pushed back as was done for Georges Bank cod, and is accompanied by restrictions on how many days at sea fishermen get, and ON where they can fish.

Fishermen say an outright ban on catching cod is not practical. "You'd have to ban all fishing, so I don't think that will work," says Glen Libby, a groundfisherman in Port Clyde and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. "I don't know how easy it's going to be for some fishermen to avoid the cod. We could encounter a lot of them, and use up a lot of our quota and get into trouble."

Still other fishermen say they are not going to stress out about the new stock assessment of cod, pending final approval. That includes Vincent Balzano, who fishes out of Portland and says cod accounts for 20 percent of his take-home income. "It's not official and anything can happen," he says. "I just know that from past experience with hearsay on fisheries, information is not always accurate."

Marine scientist Cadrin is quick to admit that stock assessment is an imprecise science. In fact, the new figures are based on the premise that the 2008 NOAA assessment is off, he says. "We're trying to estimate how many fish are in the ocean, literally. And unfortunately we need to make management decisions on people's livelihoods based on uncertain information. That's the nature of fishery science."

Still, Cadrin says it's important for people to discuss the preliminary results sooner than later because they are so striking. As a member of the New England Fishery Management Council's science committee, Cadrin will be part of a discussion about what exactly fishery managers should do after they receive a final stock assessment that's to be peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists later this month at Wood's Hole.


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