August 7th, 2014
By Jessica Trufant
Local fishermen and charter boat owners could get more bad news as federal regulators say that populations of Gulf of Maine cod continue to diminish, despite severe cuts in fishing quotas.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week announced that new, preliminary data show “virtually every indicator” of the cod stock’s condition declined or worsened in 2013.
Through underway surveys, the agency found that the population of spawning Gulf of Maine cod has plummeted to between 3 and 4 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy stock. Juvenile cod populations are also at an all-time low.
Russell Brown, deputy director of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, on Wednesday said the spawning cod levels were between 13 and 18 percent just two years ago.
“We’re very concerned about what we’re seeing,” said Brown, who will meet with the New England Fishery Management Council next week to discuss pursing an external peer review of the data.
The Secretary of Commerce declared a Northeast groundfishery disaster in 2012 due to the significant quota cuts anticipated in the 2013 fishing year for key groundfish stocks, including cod.
The New England Fishery Management Council, the regional arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service, in May 2013 reduced the cod catch in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent.
Congress in last year’s budget appropriated for New England ground fishermen $32.8 million in disaster relief aid, $14.5 million of which will go to Massachusetts.
Brown said there’s been a series of unsuccessful reproduction seasons during the last four or five years. As a result, there aren’t enough juvenile cod to support the fishery.
“There are environmental conditions that are changing, and we’re seeing clear signals of that from all fish stocks, not just cod,” Brown said. “The reproductive success of cod and haddock is largely dependent on oceanographic condition.”
Scientists have seen a “pretty steady increase” in water temperature in the Gulf of Maine, Brown said, as well as a directional shift in the plankton that sustain the young fish.
“It’s a pretty complex situation for cod,” Brown said. “The concern is that when there are very low population sizes, things that wouldn’t impact a healthy stock tend to become more significant.”
The New England Fishery Management Council has already proposed closing 55 square miles of Stellwagen Bank to recreational and charter-boat ground fishing in order to protect and research fish habitats.
The council this fall will vote on the finished proposal, which the federal government will use to set fishery-management policies.
Charlie Wade, president of the Stellwagen Bank Charter Boat Association, on Wednesday stressed that the new data needs an external review, but he agreed it’s not good news for local fishermen.
“There’s no doubt that the stocks are hurting. There’s no question about it,” Wade said. “When it comes to charter fishing, there are some very good days, and some not so good days. We’re hitting pockets of fish, but it’s a lot harder to find them for our clients.”
Charter boats and recreational anglers are currently barred from keeping cod caught between Nov. 1 and April 15.
“Already we’ve got almost six months that we’re not allowed to fish for cod, and we’re fine with that. That’s our future, our kids’ future and our grandkids’ future,” Wade said.
Wade said the catch-share regimen introduced in 2010 allowed big offshore draggers into Stellwagen, which he said “hammered” an area that had once been dependable.
“They were crushing the bank, and we saw a huge drop in fish,” Wade said, adding that exploding populations of seal and spiny dogfish have preyed on the cod stock.
Jessica Trufant may be reached at email@example.com.