Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cod allocation debated in Portsmouth - quality of science at center of discussion

Fishermen watch the Northeast Fisheries Management Council discuss the fate of their cod allocation.

Feb 1, Portsmouth, NH
     A crowd made up largely of fishermen from Maine to Boston watched and added their input to a discussion over how to respond to the latest crisis facing the life-blood of their fishery; Cod.  The controversy stems from the most recent assessment of the Gulf of Maine Cod stock which, in sharp contrast to a series of encouraging assessments over the last decade, indicate that the stock is in crisis.

Understanding the true state of fisheries stocks is a challenging task to say the least and the science that is used relies on complex equations based on critical assumptions and difficult to measure rates.  Perhaps the most critical rates are the fisheries and natural mortality rates, or the rates that fish are removed or lost from a population due to fishing or by "natural" causes.    These rates are calculated using a vast network of equations, fed by data from a range of sources including scientific surveys.   The problem right now is that the "state of the stock" based on the current system is highly variable  because of a long list of sources of error that are inherent to the process.   In addition, survey methods and the mathematical models used to calculate mortality and other rates are also often changed from one assessment to the next.  As a result, we are left with extremely variable results - with a sometimes devastating and sometimes beneficial, impact on fishermen.  For example, in the summer of 2011, the pollock allocation was increased dramatically in mid-stream during a fishing year with hugely important economic consequences for New England fishermen when results from a few scientific tows were brought to the attention of the management council.   The same variability seems to be happening with Cod.  The impact is often felt particularly strongly by fishermen who use smaller day-boats like those that characterize the NH fleet that have a limited ability to absorb significant cuts to their quota.  Here are some of the questions on the minds of fishermen that were asked emphatically yesterday:

How did this happen?  How can the stock that was managed conservatively for stock sustainability for the past decade or so based on science suddenly crash?

We know there are alot of errors in our fisheries science, so which assessment(s) were right, the past several or the latest one?  What is really happening with our Gulf of Maine Cod stocks and how can we improve the science used to manage our fisheries so that it isn't so highly volatile from year to year?

Stay tuned for the next developments - There was an excellent overview of yesterday's meeting in the Gloucter Times this morning

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