Fishermen, NOAA at odds over cod reductions

Last modified: 11/16/2014 12:30:29 AM
New Hampshire’s small commercial fishing fleet is reeling as a result of federal regulations aimed at helping cod stock in the Gulf of Maine rebound.

The regulations, rolled out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week, close fertile cod fishing areas and limit the commercial haul in open areas to a catch of 200 pounds. They also prevent recreational fishermen from processing cod.

With fewer than 30 New Hampshire commercial vessels making groundfishing trips – the catching of fish close to the bottom – in 2013, the economic impact won’t be as broad as ones expected in Portland, Maine, or Gloucester, Mass. But New Hampshire fishermen have been quick to decry the science behind the reduction, saying it will deliver another blow to a struggling industry.

“Through the course of a variety of regulatory changes and conditions, the fleet has dwindled,” said Erik Anderson, president of the New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “Now it’s at the brink of total collapse because of the location and the closures, the dimension of the closures and length of the closures.”

The regulations will be in place until May, when a long-term plan is implemented. The interim plan will hopefully help a declining stock, scientists said.

“In short, the condition of the Gulf of Maine cod stock is very serious – its abundance is just 3 to 4 percent of levels deemed sustainable for the stock,” said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a NOAA spokeswoman. The New England Fisheries Management Council, the multistakeholder body that develops management measures for fisheries in the region, asked NOAA to step in and roll out the regulations to address the declining stock and overfishing.

“The measures we implemented are a starting point to reduce fishing pressure on the stock and hopefully help it rebuild,” Mooney-Seus said. Federal regulations require NOAA to limit overfishing and try to rebuild federally managed fish stocks.

“The measures we implemented are temporary and a step toward achieving this goal,” Mooney-Seus said.

The regulations are driven by federal stock assessments, which fishermen said are flawed and don’t reflect the actual health of the stock.

“The fishermen vehemently dispute this latest assessment,” said David Goethel, captain of the F/V Ellen Diane out of Hampton Harbor. He’s served on the New England Fisheries Management Council and fished for more than two decades, and said the new measures may put him out of business.

“We have had problems with the cod stock assessments going on 20 years now,” he said.

Several closed areas are not far off of the New Hampshire coast. For a small fleet of day boats that leave in the morning and come back at night, the closure is a serious blow, Goethel said.

“It’s a completely idiotic program,” he said. “It is intended to kill fish and kill fishermen.”

Regulators sympathize with the fleet, said John Bullard, fisheries regional administrator for NOAA. “Our job is to protect the cod,” he said. “That’s where cod hang out – off of Portsmouth and Gloucester and in-shore. It’s going to have a disproportionate impact on those parts.”

Gulf of Maine cod populations have been declining for years, officials say, with current levels at their lowest point since scientists started tracking the fish 40 years ago. There are different reasons for the decline, including overfishing that “reduced the stock in size, making it vulnerable to other environmental factors that may be affecting its ability to successfully reproduce,” said Mooney-Seus.

Several years ago, the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to reduce cod catch limits by 78 percent. Whether or not the regulations will save the stock in the long term is unknown, Bullard said.

“We may find ourselves in two years feeling that it was too little, too late,” he said.

Though cod is one of the most popular groundfish in the Gulf of Maine, most of what consumers eat in New Hampshire isn’t from the gulf, Goethel said.

“It’s a global commodity. I don’t think consumers will realize a lack of cod. Most of it is from out of state,” he said. There may be a slight increase in price, he said.

“I don’t think there will be a shortage of cod,” he said. “It just won’t be Gulf of Maine cod.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @iainwilsoncm.)

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