BOSTON — Before New England’s most important fishery collapses completely and takes our codfish with it, solutions must start with the facts at hand: Many of New England’s groundfish, particularly Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod, are at historically low levels and may be in complete collapse.
Ten months into the fishing year, fishermen have reported catching only a fraction of the cod they are allowed. Given these facts, the managers of this public resource have a responsibility to do everything they can to revive and rebuild it.
Instead, they are continuing the decades-long pattern of risky decision-making that has run the most prolific fishery and fishing communities into the ground.
Against all rationality, the recommendations on the table before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are:
• To permit fishermen to catch as many of the remaining cod as they are legally allowed
• To open up currently protected habitat areas to get to the cod that have been out of reach, including the large and most productive females critical to rebuilding the population.
This is a public resource under seige from decades of overfishing; NOAA has an obligation to stiffen its resolve and get this right.
Existing closed areas around the Gulf of Maine’s Cashes Ledge and the other ecological hot spots should be expanded to protect the large females and important habitats, not opened up to fishing. The directed fishery on cod in New England should be closed until there is sufficient scientific data upon which to base critical management decisions.
In what other industry would management be allowed perpetually to make key business decisions that have no better than a 50 percent chance of succeeding?
Back in 1996, Saco’s Craig Pendleton, a longtime fisherman now out of business, identified irresponsible behavior by the managers at the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA as the core problem for New England’s fisheries.
Sadly and unforgivably, little has changed since then. New England’s fishing industry leaders have continued to put short-term gain ahead of the long-term health of the industry, ignoring the dire concerns of experienced cod scientists.
Not only do they want to set the catch rates for Gulf of Maine cod at the highest level they can legally get away with, they also pushed the fishery management council to open up significant portions of Cashes Ledge and other protected habitat areas to new commercial fishing.
All this, even though while the council was voting, the Coast Guard was boarding a commercial fishing boat allegedly using an illegal net liner that swept up juvenile cod and haddock.
To make matters worse, NOAA just decided to approve a rule at the request of the New England Council that will allow fishermen to increase next year’s already excessive harvest in the Gulf of Maine by “carrying over” the fish quotas they were allowed to catch this year but couldn’t find, effectively increasing an already excessive catch allowance on depleted stocks.
And perhaps the worst strategy that industry leaders now promote is the notion that Gulf of Maine cod can never recover to their former levels because of climate change, so the managers should just stop trying to increase their numbers. Scientists have not reached this terminal conclusion, although many will agree that the increasing ocean temperatures and increasing acidity from climate change are putting greater stress on the stocks.
Canada’s fishermen lost the opportunity to fish for cod for at least a generation through persistent overfishing. New England’s fishermen don’t have to put up with flawed management that puts their livelihoods at risk.
We need better science. We need better data. We need law-abiding fishermen. But we also need strong leadership from the New England Fishery Management Council, NOAA and our congressional delegation to follow science and the law.
Bowing under industry pressure and managing for the short term puts everyone in jeopardy and is manifestly against the public’s interests. The value of a healthy ocean to New England’s economy, ocean wildlife, communities and culture is too important to sacrifice.
Peter Shelley is senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization based in Boston
– Special to the Press Herald