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Scientists say cod still overfished

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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A preliminary assessment that cod are still being overfished could lead to further tightening of federal regulations on a fish that has been associated with the region for more than 400 years.

Last week, a group of scientists met at Woods Hole and backed the preliminary analysis of the area’s cod stock prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees fishing in federal waters. The analysis, released last month, asserted that even if all fishing of Gulf of Maine cod was prohibited, it would be unlikely that the stock would be rebuilt by 2018, some four years after NOAA had expected cod to rebound to healthy amounts.

The analysis contrasts with a 2008 NOAA report that showed cod stock on the rebound. But the new report suggests that the previous assessment may have overestimated the amount of cod in the sea by nearly 300 percent. NOAA conducts its research with ocean trawlers, uses academic scientists to study fishing stocks, and incorporates statistical reports of fish landings submitted by fishermen and seafood dealers into its reports.

In recent weeks, fishermen have called for the government to review its latest findings and said any new regulations could have a devastating impact on the local fishing industry.

“We stand to lose everything and it’s not fair. Their calculations are incorrect and we need some help to get it changed,’’ said Dennis Robillard, a Gloucester fisherman who estimated that cod constitute 90 percent of his annual catch. “We’re seeing cod in places that we don’t normally see them. They seem to be, for all intents and purposes, everywhere we fish.’’

“The preliminary stock assessment is troubling and could have a disastrous effect on our local fishermen,’’ US Representative John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said in a prepared statement. Tierney, who has called for the Department of Commerce to provide disaster assistance to the fishing community, also questioned the assessment’s findings. “It underscores the continuing need for better data and science upon which to make such important decisions.’’

According to NOAA spokeswoman Teri Frady, the latest cod assessment is more robust than the 2008 study, and corrects a previously accepted finding that there was an abundant amount of cod born in 2005. The new assessment also includes more data on both commercial and recreational discards that were not available 2008, and includes improved biological data about fish growth, according to Frady.

While the final assessment is set to be released next month, discussions have already begun between members of the fishing industry and federal regulators on how to keep the battered groundfish industry alive.

“The goal is to address the stock status and make sure we don’t overfish the stock,’’ said NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus.

Mooney-Seus said the New England Fishery Management Council, which crafts federal regulations, could take steps to further limit the amount of cod fishing in the area.

Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based fishing lobby Northeast Seafood Coalition, also questioned the latest federal cod assessment and called for NOAA to review its findings.

“If they don’t look at this in an open-minded capacity and they continue to move forward in a rigid, structured march, then this will be a disaster,’’ she said.

Cod, long a staple of the groundfish industry, has been regulated for decades, and the stock has slowly been rebuilding since its near collapse in the early 1990s. Once, fishermen could catch as many groundfish as they could land as often as they wanted.

But over the last 20 years, regulators have gradually introduced strict fishing rules to cut back on cod catch. In 2002, a federal judge limited cod fishermen to 88 days at sea. That gradually was reduced to fewer than 30 days at sea, and now most area cod fishermen work in sectors and pool their catch.

While Gloucester is still a center for groundfishing in northern Massachusetts - which is close to fertile fishing grounds such as the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Jeffreys Ledge - its fishing fleet has shrunk considerably from its heyday in the 1950s when hundreds of boats dotted Gloucester Harbor. Last year, the number of fishing boats in the city continued to decline, dropping from 96 to 75.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.

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