PORTLAND – As the New England Fishery Management Council meets this week in Portland to tackle the intricacies of sustaining our region’s offshore fisheries, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has released a paper that sheds light on one of the most perplexing problems confronting these managers — the dramatic decline of cod in the Gulf of Maine.
“The Future of Cod in the Gulf of Maine” explores the range of biological, climatological, economic and fishery management factors that affect this iconic species.
The report, available at GMRI.org, focuses on cod’s place in the food chain, the intricate nature of local subpopulations in the region, the effect of harvesting pressure on the species and the impact of climate change on cod’s ability to survive here.
Cod is part of a mix of bottom-dwelling groundfish species (including haddock, pollock, redfish, hake and flounder) that live primarily offshore in federal waters; the fishermen who fish for these species are subject to a complex array of federal regulations. Those regulations are set with the guidance of the council and adhere to standards laid out in federal law, standards that are among the strictest in the world.
Earlier this year, the council imposed a 78 percent cut in the annual harvest of cod from the Gulf of Maine, reacting to a dire stock assessment (the method scientists use to determine the abundance of a species and the level of harvest it can sustain).
The bad news was not limited to cod — populations of haddock and some flounder are also near historic lows in the Gulf of Maine. These declines have occurred against a backdrop of aggressive conservation measures:
• Strict annual catch limits set with scientific advice.
• Weekly accounting for landings.
• Minimum mesh sizes for nets, minimizing the capture of young fish.
• Seasonal and permanent closed areas to protect spawning fish.
• Habitat conservation areas.
• Federal monitoring of catch.
• Rules against wasteful discards.
Too often, though, bad news overshadows the good and overlooks the profound regulatory and economic changes the fishing industry has endured over the past several years:
• Some stocks, such as pollock, redfish and monkfish, are faring well.
• Fishermen are working with a network of scientists at the School for Marine Science and Technology at the University of Massachusetts, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Rhode Island and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to develop new nets and share information to minimize bottom impact and select only abundant species for harvest.
• Local fish processors, including Bristol Seafood, Cozy Harbor Seafood and North Atlantic Seafood, are working with regional grocery chains, such as Hannaford and Shaw’s, to promote Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested fish throughout the region. (Ask for it at your local grocery store!)
• Local fishermen and restaurants are collaborating with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to promote consumption of underutilized, abundant species such as dogfish, mackerel, pollock and redfish.
The challenges over the next decade will be improving the accuracy of the scientific advice on which catch limits are set, coping with changes of fish abundance caused by ocean warming, and supporting fishermen in marketing responsibly harvested groundfish as a healthy source of protein to environmentally conscious, premium markets.
In “The Future of Cod,” Gulf of Maine Research Institute scientists lay out several research recommendations that would help address these challenges.
We focus attention on the importance of protecting old, large and vastly productive females. We also urge managers to determine the species’ subpopulations more accurately to ensure that management reflects biological and spatial realities of cod.
Finally, global warming has led to a changing ocean ecosystem that our current regulations cannot anticipate or encompass. The Gulf of Maine lies at the southern extreme of cod’s comfort zone, so a sustained increase of even a few degrees will greatly stress the population in our waters.
These and other factors discussed in our cod paper highlight the complex nature of our marine environment and the equally complex challenges that can make sustaining a healthy ocean so elusive. Yet deep within that complexity lie answers we must continue to reveal — answers that will help the Gulf of Maine reclaim its reputation as among the world’s richest and most productive marine ecosystems.
Jonathan Labaree is director of community initiatives for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and Donald W. Perkins is president and CEO.