06fishing - Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine. (Brian Skerry)
A Red Cod swam at Cashes Ledge, 70-miles off the coast of Maine.
BRIAN SKERRY

A recent assessment of the Gulf of Maine’s cod stock shows the iconic species’ population has reached an all-time low, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

The assessment states that underwater surveys show “virtually every indicator of stock condition” has declined or worsened over the past year, and the species has fallen to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. This is down from between 13 and 18 percent in the last assessment, conducted in 2011.

The assessment also showed all-time low numbers of young fish, indicated by dwindling spawning rates.

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Russell Brown, deputy science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center — the branch of NOAA that did the research — told The Boston Globe that the situation is “dire” for the fish stock and the fishing community.

“I think our findings would lead to recommendations that we need to be very careful about subjecting the stock to any additional fishing mortality,” Brown said.

Brown told The Globe he will present the data next week at the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing issues in the region.

The bleak news comes on the heels of Congress having to appropriate $32.8 million in aid this year to ground fishermen in New England after the fishery council cut the fishing quota for cod in the gulf by 80 percent two years ago.

Yet some Maine fishermen have said their annual catch has shown the state of cod stock as stable. Terry Alexander, a fisherman from Harpswell, Maine, told The Globe the new catch data seems inaccurate, and “doesn’t match” what he’s seen on the water.

But a study by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center claims that changes in the prey available to cod may affect the accuracy of fishermen’s perception of the situation.

As more cod feed on sand lances, a species known to congregate in shallow areas, large amounts of cod have been flocking to the same small area on Stellwagen Bank.

David Richardson, an oceanographer at the NEFSC’s Narragansett Laboratory in Rhode Island, said the abundance of cod aggregating in the area were easily caught by fishermen, who, between 1994 and 2010, fished the Bank 191 percent more.

Since cod in the Bank was abundant, fishermen thought the overall population was stable. “One of the main conclusions of this study is that the trends in cod abundance in this small region were not truly reflective of the overall resource at the time,” Richardson said in the report.