In August, NOAA scientists conducted a Gulf of Maine cod stock assessment. They discovered that the spawning biomass, or the breeding population, was only three to four percent of its target level—the lowest it has been in 40 years. The strength and viability of a fish population depends on its ability to reproduce. With such a low percent of the needed breeding population, this seemed unlikely for Gulf of Maine cod—the fishery had collapsed.
This announcement left scientist and fishermen butting heads about the accuracy of the assessment and the appropriate next steps to take. And since then, we have been waiting for regional and/or federal regulators to announce a plan of action to address this crisis. Three months later, we have finally received word of an interim emergency action plan.
On Monday, November 10 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency responsible for maintaining our ocean resources and habitats, issued its interim measures in response to the Gulf of Maine cod fishery collapse. The responsibility of issuing emergency action for the remainder of the fishing year was handed off to NMFS after the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) failed to complete the job itself.
NMFS addressed the crisis with two specific goals in mind: provide spawning protection and minimize overall take. They also wanted to act as quickly as possible. The measures which will be in effect from November 13, 2014 to May 15, 2015 include:
- Rolling area closures to protect spawning and high aggregation areas based on historical catch locations
- Commercial fishermen are limited to a 200 pound catch of cod per fishing trip
- No recreational fishing for cod—all cod caught must be thrown back to the sea
- Increased gill net use restrictions
- Vessels are restricted to fishing in only one Gulf of Maine management area per trip
While it was the hope of some that NMFS would prohibit cod fishing all together, the measures do get at one of the most important aspects of proper fisheries management: habitat protection.
For fish populations, cod in particular, to thrive and be able to withstand fishing pressures, protecting spawning areas is extremely important. Fishermen, many with a lifetime of experience, know exactly where fish congregate and where they will be able to find the most valuable catch. This means however that too often the fishermen target the largest cod. Scientists have discovered that a fish’s fecundity increases with age and size, a theory that is termed the BOFFFF (Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish) hypothesis. These large cod are the reproducing females that are responsible for keeping population numbers high. Protecting spawning areas is an effort to protect these large females, and therefore ensuring the continuation of a strong population.
NMFS importantly recognized the significance of habitat protection and made a point to not change any existing closure programs in the Gulf of Maine. It had been feared by some that some that these areas, one being Cashes Ledge, would be reopened in order to offset the new rolling area closures implemented through the interim measures. Fortunately, this did not occur.
The overall incentive of the emergency measures was for fishermen to avoid cod at all costs. These are strong measures that they will likely have major impacts on fishermen in the New England area; however, they still may not be enough to turn the cod crisis around. For now, we will just have to wait and see.
The video below provides a simple explanation of how NOAA Fisheries conducts fishery stock assessments (although they are anything but simple), using the Pacific hake fishery as an example.