July 13, 2020

Council to vote on stricter cod limits > Stocks in Gulf of Maine on verge of collapse

New England fishery managers will debate next week how to severely restrict fishing in the Gulf of Maine, where scientists say cod stocks are in danger of collapse.

The New England Fishery Management Council is scheduled to meet in Wakefield, Mass., Wednesday, Jan. 14, and vote Thursday, Jan. 15, on stricter measures to rebuild cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine. Maine’s groundfish fleet, consisting largely of small, family-owned and operated boats, is concentrated in the 36,000-square-mile body of water stretching from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia.

Temporary and permanent closures of certain fishing grounds within the gulf and further limits on the amount of cod caught per fishing trip are among the measures being considered. The rules would be imposed in time for the 1998 groundfish season starting May 1.

“It’s clear closures are the most effective means to rebuild stocks,” Penn Estabrook, acting Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner, said Wednesday.

Estabrook said no one is questioning the need for tougher rules. He said the issue is exactly what areas would be partially or permanently closed to fishing and for how long.

The New England Fishery Management Council is one of several regional advisory groups set up by the Magnuson Act in 1976. The council drafts fishery management plans that are subject to approval by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Last month, the New England council’s Multispecies Monitoring Committee reported cod stocks were at historic low levels in the Gulf of Maine and in danger of collapsing. The committee of scientists called for a 63 percent cut in the cod catch. They came up with various ways to rebuild cod stocks. The options under consideration include closing certain fishing grounds partially or year-round, further reducing fishermen’s days at sea and restricting how much cod can be caught per fishing trip.

Steve Correia, a fishery biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, heads the council. He likened the situation to the crash several years ago of groundfish stocks on Georges Bank — a vast, shallow plateau 200 miles southeast of Portland — once one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.

“It’s very analogous. Gulf of Maine cod stocks are at record low levels. There’s is not a lot of young fish coming into the population,” he said Thursday. “This crisis could have been prevented if more measures were taken back in the 1980s.”

In 1994, the National Marine Fisheries Service closed thousands of square miles of Georges Bank to groundfishing at the council’s request. Since then, cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder stocks have started to recover.

The National Research Council this week affirmed the scientific data used by federal fishery biologists to support the need for greater conservation of cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine. Earlier this year, the council was requested by Congress to review the methods U.S. and Canadian government scientists use to assess groundfish stocks.

The council concluded NMFS scientists’ methods could be improved but were adequate to support fishery management decisions.

“It is difficult to evaluate the degree to which factors such as fish harvesting, climate changes or pollution affect the abundance or decline of fish stocks,” the council said in a press release issued this week. “Even so, fish mortality caused by harvesting is known to have played a major role in reducing stocks in the 1980s and early 1990s, and continues to do so in the Gulf of Maine.”

The Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Marine Conservation and the Environmental Defense Fund collectively this week backed the council’s findings.

“We hope that the National Research Council report will put to rest fishermen’s criticism of the science behind groundfish management,” Eleanor Dorsey, a fishery scientist at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said Thursday. “It will certainly bolster the council when it meets next week to address the latest casualty in the region — Gulf of Maine cod.”

The council is meeting Jan. 14-15 at the Colonial Hilton in Wakefield, Mass. The vote on proposed groundfish rules is set for 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 15. For information, call 1-781-245-9300.

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