The New England Fishery Management Council’s scientific and statistical committee met yesterday in Newburyport, Mass., to decide how deeply to cut the quota of Georges Bank cod. The committee’s decision could have a big impact on the Montauk charter and party boat industry.
Stock surveys undertaken in the spring of 2012 and again as recently as December appear to show that the two primary cod populations, the Gulf of Maine stock and the Georges Bank stock, are in “poor” condition, according to a report released by the council last week.
A summary of the report states that the two peer-reviewed surveys indicate that the Gulf of Maine stock is at extremely low levels. The surveys also determined that the Georges Bank stock, which descends into waters fished by Long Island-based boats during the winter months, is in bad shape. Last week’s council report stated that the last above-average year for Georges Bank cod was 1991. Until the spawning stock gets above about 50,000 metric tons, “rebuilding will be slow.”
Atlantic cod are a species of “groundfish” that are strictly regulated by the New England council. The dip in cod populations is not being blamed on overfishing, but fishermen will likely lose quota anyway.
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, said that low levels might also be explained by the way the council’s surveys were conducted. The New England council manages 18 separate stocks of 13 species of groundfish.
“Are the stocks moving because of changes in ocean temperature? They may not be in the traditional areas where the Bigalow surveys,” Ms. Brady said, referring to one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels. “If they are not surveying in places where cod are, it skews the data. Fish are not random creatures. A quarter of a degree in temperature and they move. So, why are they doing random sampling of a nonrandom species?”
Ms. Brady said that cod had been the one species of groundfish that commercial fishermen with the appropriate licenses could fish for.
The council’s science and statistics committee is expected to recommend cutting the “allowable biological catch” for Georges Bank cod in half from 5,103 metric tons last year to 2,002 metric tons this year. Quota cuts will surely hurt the recreational cod fishery as well. Last year’s recreational cod season was miserable, with very low landings.
However, the 2009 through 2011 seasons were some of the best in recent memory. On Monday, anglers aboard two of Montauk’s Viking fleet of party boats were catching an average of seven to eight cod each, with some cod in the 20-to-25-pound range. Orla Reville of the Viking fleet said the fishing had already surpassed last season’s dismal catch.
In the southern New England management zone, where Montauk-based charter and party boats fish, cod must be at least 22 inches long, but there is no bag limit.
Pat Fiorelli, a spokeswoman for the New England council, said yesterday there would be further deliberation tomorrow by the council’s groundfish committee. The regulatory response will likely be decided upon during the four-day meeting of the full council on Wednesday.
“I’m not sure what the council will do. I have not heard that they might shut it down entirely. There’s been no official discussion of that,” Ms. Fiorelli said.