Fishermen and federal officials grappled Friday with the increasingly bleak prospect of finding some way for the historic New England industry to avoid collapse amid troubles with the health of Gulf of Maine cod.
Their meeting came in the week after regional regulators bought fisherman a yearlong reprieve from what would have been devastating cuts in 2012. But projections discussed Friday showed fishermen still face disastrous cuts in 2013 that most won't survive.
"It's going to be hard to preserve the industry at those low numbers (in 2013) and that's something that concerns us a great deal," said Sam Rauch, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries arm, who led the meeting of fishermen, scientists and regulators.
"This truly is one of the iconic fisheries," he said in an interview after the meeting. "When you think of what the U.S. fisherman is, it's an inshore Gulf of Maine cod fisherman. That's why we are so devoted to working through this process to try to overturn every possibility we can. But the future, 2013, does not look rosy."
The cod in the Gulf of Maine has been crucial to New England fishermen from Cape Cod to Maine for hundreds of years, and four years ago, after a major assessment, it was thought to be one of the region's strongest species. It brought in $15.8 million in 2010, second highest amount behind Georges Bank haddock among the region's 20 regulated bottom-dwelling groundfish.
But data released last year indicated the fish was so severely overfished that even if all fishing on it ended immediately, it wouldn't rebound by 2014 to levels required under federal law.
As a result, fishermen were looking at an 82 percent cut in what they were allowed to catch in 2011, a catastrophic reduction that would have wiped out fishermen around the region _ not just those who rely on cod. That's because major restrictions on cod severely limit fishing on the other key groundfish species, such as flounder and haddock, in order to protect the cod they swim among.
Last week, regional regulators at the New England Fishery Management Council asked NOAA to adopt a one-year emergency rule that would enable regulators to avoid the massive cut. And they recommended allowing fishermen to catch either 6,700 metric tons or 7,500 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod in 2012.
On Friday, Rauch signaled that NOAA would allow the 6,700 catch limit in the 2012 fishing year, which starts in May. That would mean a tough 22 percent cut from what they were allowed to catch in 2011, though not nearly as deep a reduction as first feared.
The problem, according to new projections discussed Friday, is that after the emergency rule expires in 2013, fishermen are again looking at a cut in cod catch just as severe as the huge reduction they were originally facing.
From the first indications of cod trouble, fishermen and their advocates have questioned the science behind the new data and Friday was no exception.
"We don't trust your data," New Hampshire charter boat fisherman Bill Wagner told regulators. "We don't believe there's a shortage of codfish. We don't believe there's a crisis in codfish."
Massachusetts Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who represents the port of Gloucester, criticized what she characterized as the constant, massive swings in scientific assessments on the size of fish populations.
"We're always in the same dilemma and I don't understand why," she said.
Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone said the new assessment has put the fishing industry "on death row."
"The anxiety the industry feels is unprecedented," he said
With so much doubt about the science behind the new data, Cottone said, regulators should give fishermen as much fish to catch as possible while they try to remove uncertainties in the numbers.
"To basically flip the switch on the industry with so much reasonable doubt would be irresponsible," he said.
Rauch said the verifying and improving the science is a top priority, and no one can predict if the new work can find something in the next year that significantly improves the assessment of cod health.
"It's always possible we'll find something there, but even if we don't, this year allows us time to better plan ... for where this industry may end up," Rauch said. "Fishermen are resilient, they figure out ways to adapt. But this will be hard to adapt to."