NOAA Fisheries issued emergency measures last week to protect Gulf of Maine cod. On the heels of this emergency action, the New England Fishery Management Council has recommended new restrictions to address the depleted cod population, as it finalizes next year’s fishing management measures for several fish.
The new management plan would go into effect next May, after NOAA Fisheries reviews and approves those recommendations first. Between now and then, the emergency measures are in effect, because the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is at an all-time low, according to the latest data.
Christopher Brown, president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association, reassures none of these fishing restrictions will have a direct impact on Rhode Island fishermen.
“The cod fish that we catch are not considered to be Western gulf of Maine cod,” said Brown. “The cod we catch are considered to be Georges Bank cod. It’s a different stock complex.”
Bob Ballou, assistant to the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, agrees with Brown. He said Rhode Island fishermen target a range of fish species, whereas fishermen in the Gulf of Maine primarily rely on groundfish. And they don't have the flexibility to switch to other species, such as squid, butterfish, or scallops, to make up for the inability to harvest groundfish.
Ballou said many fishermen from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine attended the council meetings in Newport this week to share how these new recommended management plans would affect their livelihood.
Ballou said there may be indirect impacts to Rhode Island. It’s too soon to know if displaced fishermen from the Gulf of Maine may start to target fisheries in southern New England. That would heighten challenges for Rhode Island fishermen.
“No one knows for sure that that would happen,” said Ballou. “I mean, it’s conjecture to suggest that that’s an issue. But it’s something that’s on our minds.”
By law, these fishery management councils have to protect fish from overfishing. The term overfishing often implies that fishermen are harvesting more than they should.
“But that’s not the case. The fishermen are abiding by the rules,” said Ballou. “What is happening, unfortunately for them, is that the [New England Fishery] management council and NOAA Fisheries are finding that the quotas are not being set low enough to enable to cod to rebuild.”
So far, the council has come up with three recommendations to protect and rebuild the cod population. That includes a significant reduction to the annual fishing quota for the entire Gulf of Maine.
“In a relatively short amount of time, the quota for cod in the Gulf of Maine has dropped from 6,000 tons to 1,500 tons and now down to 386 tons,” said Ballou. “That is a huge cut. It is obviously a devastating cut for those fishermen who have been relying upon cod as part of their portfolio.”
The council has also recommended to close off areas to fishing (lobster fishermen are exempt) and prohibit recreational fishermen to harvest any cod.
But Brown said Gulf of Maine fishermen will start to feel negative impacts with the emergency restrictions already in place. Those restrictions will have serious repercussions, because the emergency rules have now turned cod into a bycatch fishery.
“I just don’t – I don’t see these guys surviving,” said Brown. “I’ve never said that. I’ve always thought the scenario was often times exaggerated and dramatized, but quite frankly I do not see these guys surviving now. This is the first time I’ve ever felt that in the 35 years of my fishing career.”
Brown believes many complicated factors are affecting cod recovery in the Gulf of Maine, including poor management practices and climate change.
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