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New England groundfish fleet faces cod, haddock challenges

The groundfish fishery in the U.S. Northeast is facing new regulations and management.

A new plan from New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) will implement a decade of low catch limits, with the goal of rebuilding the Gulf of Maine cod stock. It will also guide the 2023 fishing year.

In coordination with various policy, management, and commercial fishing partners, NEFMC has been working for some time to rebuild the Gulf of Maine cod population, initiating a 10-year rebuilding process in December 2022 known as Framework 65.

The stock is classified ‘overfished,’ meaning the biomass is below where it should be, with ‘overfishing occurring,’ meaning fishing mortality is too high, since 2011, as well as in some of the years before that,” NEFMC Spokesperson Janice Plante said. “The council could have selected a shorter rebuilding time, but that would have led to deeper cuts to commercial catches and recreational fisheries and would not have considered the uncertainties of natural mortality, climate change, and recruitment. The longer rebuilding period considers biology and the needs of fishing communities.”

With the cod stocks and landings both struggling, and the amount of fishing pressure allowed being very low, the fishery industry has been staying within its allowable catch limits, Plante said, but unfavorable environmental conditions may likely prove to be a critical factor inhibiting the stock’s ability to rebuild.

Overall biomass remains very low and we’ve had poor recruitment,” Plante said.

According to NOAA data, Atlantic cod was plentiful in the past, but by 2021, the catch dropped to about 1.3 million pounds harvested, with a total value of USD 2.9 million (EUR 2.6 million), the lowest haul in the fishery’s history. A 2019 stock assessment revealed that the Gulf of Maine cod was making “inadequate progress” toward rebuilding. As a result, big increases for cod over the next decade remain unlikely and in the short term will also remain low, Plante said.

Annual catch limits for Gulf of Maine cod were set last year for fishing years 2022 through 2024 based on a constant acceptable biological catch. The Gulf of Maine cod rebuilding plan doesn’t change those. The catch limit was set at a very low level for the 2022 fishing year and will remain at a similar level for 2023,” Plante said.

Similar to cod, haddock stocks are facing pressures. In 2021, total commercial landings of haddock totaled around 16 million pounds and were valued at approximately USD 20 million (EUR 18.3 million), according to the NOAA Fisheries. But the Gulf of Maine haddock catch limit will also be significantly lower in fishing year 2023 than in 2022, because the most recent updated stock assessment indicated that biomass is much lower than expected. The catch limit for Gulf of Maine haddock is down 84 percent in the 2023 fishing year compared to 2022, while the Georges Bank stock is also down significantly.

However, as the 1 May start of the fishing year approached, the New England council asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for an emergency action to boost the 2023 allowable catch of haddock in the Gulf of Maine.

Council members learned that “fishermen have been encountering Gulf of Maine haddock at very high catch rates,” according to the council.

The proposed 2023 annual catch limit (ACL), however, is extremely low,” it said. It asked NMFS to address a critical Gulf of Maine haddock situation that is expected to result in significant fishery impacts during the 2023 groundfish fishing year, according to a council statement.

Jerry Leeman, a groundfish fisherman and founder of the New England Fishermen Stewardship Association (NEFSA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said he is concerned about the haddock resource, and how it impacts his bottom line. Leeman said the upcoming haddock cuts are unnecessary, in part because they are based on assessments that do not reveal a full picture of stock abundance or health, and only cover a small area.

It’s a matter of these restrictions that are about to come into play. They’re asking for a 83 percent reduction,” he said. “I don’t think there should be a cut at all, there should be status quo until we do an accurate biomass assessment.”

Leeman said low prices are also an issue for New England’s groundfishing fleet. In mid-January, cod was getting average per-pound prices of  USD 4.35 to USD 4.42 (EUR 3.99 to EUR 4.06) and haddock was getting USD 2.03 (EUR 1.86) per pound at the Portland Fish Exchange fresh seafood auction in the U.S. state of Maine. In early February, average prices in New Bedford, Massachusetts, were USD 2.68 (EUR 2.46) for market cod and USD 2.26 (EUR 2.07) per pound of haddock.

If you go in the Gulf of Maine and catch haddock, it will cost you money. There are so few of us left in New England anymore. It’s hard to say about prices, to see what baselines are for allowable catch per year. When everyone who’s sitting on permits sees they need fish, it starts to be a price war,” he said. “We’ll all be at the bread line if they keep it up. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but boats will just shut down.”

Leeman said overfishing was not the problem.

Who’s overfishing? We’re down to about 17 active boats in the New England groundfishing fleet,” he said. “Landings are low because no one is bothering. I’m seeing them up and down the seaboard. We run away from the damn things, because it costs us financially to catch them. You have to be on top of your game and stay away.”

A significant new factor that could potentially impact the management of cod in the future is the potential identification of additional distinct cod populations in New England. The Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod stocks are already clearly recognized as distinct, but an NEFMC working group concluded that there might be four or five separate stocks. Plante said the council expects more clarity on the issue later this summer.

If the results reveal more than two stocks, a recommendation will be made to see how the stocks will be assessed separately on a management side and how the council will potentially transition to a possible new stock structure.” Plante said. “Nobody really understands the greater implications of this yet.”


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