WASHINGTON — The federal government’s actions to curtail fishing in New England, including closing Georges Bank and other historically rich grounds, were necessary in order to improve severely depleted stocks of cod, haddock and flounder, a study released Wednesday said.
Congress required the National Research Council study in 1996, after fishermen complained that restrictions imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the New England Fisheries Management Council were unwarranted and poorly supported by scientific data.
In 1994, the NMFS took emergency action and closed 30 percent of Georges Bank to fishermen because of a decline in fish stocks. That area has remained closed since then, and a report released last month by the New England council showed improvement in cod, haddock and flounder stocks.
The council’s study, which was funded by the government, said fishing restrictions were not only necessary but should continue if stocks are to recover. It said the restrictions were based on sound methods used by federal scientists for assessing stocks.
Despite “initial signs of recovery for some stocks … population numbers are still dangerously low,” the council wrote. “Any relaxation of management measures may jeopardize the sustained recovery of these commercial fisheries, which are vital to New England’s economy.”
The council is a private, nonprofit group created by Congress to conduct scientific and technical research.
“They have agreed with us that there’s no escaping the need for restrictions on fishing effort if we want to protect stocks poised for recovery like those of Georges Bank,” said Michael P. Sissenwine, NMFS’ science and research director for the Northeast.
Although the council said current stock assessment practices are sound, it recommended improvements, including assessing stocks more frequently than every three years, involving fishermen in the assessment process and evaluating the impact of specific restrictions, such as days-at-sea limits, on stocks.
“They never, ever, ever listen to the fishermen,” said Louis A. Linquata, chairman of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission, who said he expected the study to support the government’s restrictions because it was government-sponsored.
Linquata complained that fishermen have been blamed entirely for the collapse of stocks when other factors, such as predatory seals eating juvenile fish, have also played a role.