PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Fishermen trying to survive an unexpectedly dire assessment of the health of cod in the Gulf of Maine gathered in New Hampshire on Friday with scientists and rulemakers to seek ways to head off a looming crisis.
The new report is a reversal of a 2008 study that indicated cod was strong and getting stronger after years of struggle and tight fishing restrictions. But the preliminary new data suggests cod is, in fact, heavily overfished and won’t fully recover by the 2014 deadline set by federal law, even if fishermen were stopped from catching a single cod.
A total shutdown on codfishing to protect the species is the worst case-scenario for a species crucial to the small boat fishermen who catch the cod on day trips from the tip of Cape Cod to northern Maine.
But even the cuts being floated — down to as little as 9 percent of what was caught last year — would cripple those fishermen, no matter what other bottom-dwelling groundfish species they chase. That’s because cod swim among other groundfish, such as flounder, so the catch on those key species must be restricted to protect cod.
Fishermen would also lose access to a fish that brought in $15.8 million last year, second most behind Georges Bank haddock among the region’s 20 regulated groundfish.
“If this stands, I’m going to sell out,” said Joe Orlando, a lifelong Gloucester fisherman. “I’m not threatening you here. I’m just telling you the way it is.”
Eric Schwaab, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries service, flew up from Washington to attend Friday’s meeting, which his agency helped pull together in recent weeks.
Schwaab said regulators can’t afford to rule out solutions that fall outside the established scientific and management guidelines, because the “numbers are so bad and the implication to the fisheries so significant.”
NOAA official Samuel Rauch, who ran the meeting, emphasized that everything was being considered.
“Under any scenario we have difficult choices to make,” he said. “Under some of them, it’s difficult to see how the fishery will continue. … We have to stretch.”
Participants threw out a range of ideas, from easing restrictions by extending the 2014 rebuilding deadline to allowing the fishery to simply shut down as a way to spur Congress to change federal fishery law.
If the data is verified, the drastic cuts would have to be in effect by the May 1 start of the fishing year. Several people suggested taking steps to give regulators more time to investigate alternatives and even collect new scientific data.
Peter Shelley of the environmental group the Conservation Law Foundation expressed doubt that cod was so suddenly in such poor shape. He noted the data shows it’s recovering, even if it’s not fast enough to meet the 2014 deadline.
“Just in my gut, I don’t think Gulf of Maine cod is in jeopardy,” he said.
According to regional regulators, if the new data holds up, New Hampshire would see a 90 percent drop in groundfish revenues compared to 2010, Maine would see a 54 percent drop in revenues and Massachusetts would have a 21 percent drop, with northeastern ports such as Gloucester (a 60 percent drop) taking the worst hit.
Fishermen have been deeply skeptical of the new data, saying the dismal outlook contradicts what they’re seeing on the water, where they say cod is abundant and being caught over an ever-larger area.