Maine fishermen are going to have to wait until next month to find out how new cod-fishing regulations will affect them.

In light of reports of sharply diminished cod stocks, the New England Fishery Management Council, an 18-member group of scientists, conservationists, regulators and fishing industry representatives, recommended Wednesday that federal fishing regulators take emergency measures to help slow further declines.

But after hearing from fishermen concerned about the effects of stricter regulations, council members could not agree on exactly what those emergency measures should be. Instead, the council voted simply to “request that (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries take emergency action to help minimize the further decline of this stock this year and in 2015.”

Next, month, NOAA officials will meet to discuss and propose new regulations, and to hold public hearings on them.

Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said his group was disappointed to come out of the meetings without any specifics on what will change.

“There’s a lot of worried fishermen in Maine and we were really looking for some direction from the council,” said Martens, whose group catches about one-third of the groundfish landed in Maine. “But today left us with more questions than answers. We weren’t exactly excited about what was on the table but at least we wanted to get some direction.”

Cod was the first commercial fishery in the United States, and a mainstay of New England’s fishing industry for decades. It is one of a number of species known as groundfish because they live near the bottom of the ocean and are typically caught by dragging nets along the sea floor.

At its peak in 1991, Maine’s cod catch reached an estimated 21.2 million pounds, representing about $16.3 million in sales, according to the state Department of Marine Resources.

But by 2013, the catch had declined to just 286,000 pounds, valued at roughly $736,000. There were 44 commercial vessels in Maine that landed cod in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available.

Beginning in the 1970s, measures were enacted to try to protect the fishery, including limits on days at sea and size of the catch, and closing certain areas to fishing.

Last year, the New England Fishery Management Council approved a 77 percent reduction in the catch limit for cod in the Gulf of Maine, to 1,550 metric tons until 2016 – that’s down from 6,700 metric tons in 2012. The council also approved reducing the catch limit by 55 percent for cod on Georges Bank, to 2,506 metric tons a year.

But fishing stocks are so low – and so young – that quotas might not be enough, said Graham Sherwood, a research scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

“When we set quotas, we make assumptions about how productive the existing population is going to be, and how much reproduction we can get out of the existing spawning stock,” he said. “Now we’re at such low levels that a lot of the assumptions go out the window.”

For example, the population is now dominated by young, first-time spawners that may have less reproductive impact than older fish, Sherwood said.

Before overfishing took hold, it was typical to find cod in the Gulf of Maine that were up to 20 years old. In recent years, it was not uncommon to find 10- to 12-year-old cod that had been spawning several times a year for eight years.

“They’re the wise fish who know where to spawn and have the larger reproductive output,” Sherwood said. “Their eggs are higher quality and have a greater chance of survival. They’re important drivers of any recovery.”

These days, it’s rare to find a fish that’s older than 5 or 6, Sherwood said. That means population rebuilding efforts are largely relying on first-time spawners.

What’s more, predictions of climate change and warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine suggest conditions are going to get worse for cod, said Malin Pinsky, a member of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“A broad recovery of cod would help them be more resilient to the warming temperatures that we expect in the future,” he said.

Sherwood said water temperatures haven’t reached lethal limits for cod. “But it’s certainly causing shifts in the preferred habitat, not only on cod but also on their prey,” he said.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at:

[email protected]


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