Sadly, NMFS’ Assessment Was Right

Gulf of Maine Atlantic Cod, by Joachim S. Mueller

Photo: Gulf of Maine Atlantic Cod, by Joachim S. Mueller

Counting fish is a difficult job, and even the best stock assessment contains its share of uncertainty.

The 2014 stock assessment update for Gulf of Maine cod found that, depending on the model used, the current spawning stock biomass might be as low as 2,100 metric tons or as high as 2,400 metric tons, and that’s before any statistical errors are taken into consideration. However, for practical management purposes, any such errors shrink into insignificance, since the spawning stock biomass needed to support a healthy, sustainable stock is somewhere between 47,184 and 69,621 metric tons, again depending upon the model used, and the current spawning stock is, at best a mere 4% of that.

Thus, there isn’t much uncertainty about the state of the cod stock at all. Based on the best available data, Gulf of Maine cod are in serious trouble.

Fishermen, however, disagree. Rejecting the scientists’ data in favor of their own opinions about the stock’s health, they objected to harvest reductions imposed in response to the update. Vito Giacolone, the policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said, “The fish are in great shape and the only real constraint on catch is quota. Fishermen are seeing that across the board on a lot of the species…We’ve never had a greater gap between what the fishermen are seeing on the water and what the scientists are saying. Never.”

Some have argued that the scientists’ problem is that they use gear that isn’t good for catching the species in question. Gloucester, Massachusetts fisherman Al Cottone claims that the gear used in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) fish surveys miss “the species that tend to stay on the bottom, like cod and flounders. Everything that attacks the bottom of the net is taking a hit, is that a coincidence? If we were seeing that every day in our fishing practices, we’d all say we have a serious problem. But that’s not what we’re seeing.”

In response to concerns about the accuracy of the NMFS surveys, and in an effort to support its struggling fishing industry, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to do its own survey, announcing that, “Given the poor stock of Gulf of Maine (GOM) cod, low catch limits, and many fisherman’s claims that the cod status is better than currently assessed, MarineFisheries implemented a new GOM Cod Industry Based Survey in April 2016.”

The first year of the survey has been completed, and the news is not good. As the Boston Globe reported, “in a milestone in the war over the true state of cod in the Gulf of Maine, Massachusetts scientists have reached the same dismal conclusion that their federal counterparts did: The region’s cod are at a historic low—about 80 percent less than the population from just a decade ago.”

The state survey was comprehensive. According to the Globe, “the state spent more than $500,000 to trawl for cod in 10 times as many locations [compared to the NMFS surveys]. Rather than sampling the waters twice a year, as [NMFS] does, the state cast its nets every month from last April to January, and kept them in the water about 50 percent longer. They also searched for the fish in deeper waters, where fishermen have said they tend to congregate.” Micah Dean, the Massachusetts scientist overseeing the survey, noted that “It was an exhaustive survey meant to provide an answer to the questions that the fishermen were posing. But the fish weren’t there.”

Fishermen, on the other hand, are steadfastly rejecting the Massachusetts survey’s results. Vito Giacalone declared, “The state survey literally does zero to improve our confidence. You can’t just sample anywhere. You have to go where the cod are supposed to be. Where these fish exist in the western Gulf of Maine is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime.”

Scientists say that cod tend to group together when the population shrinks, and that fishermen tend to emphasize the places where such bunches of cod remain abundant, and ignore all of the empty water elsewhere. But bolstered by their own observations and, perhaps, by confirmation bias—people’s tendency to embrace any information that supports their own beliefs, and reject information that contradicts them—fishermen remain unwilling to accept what the scientists say.

As noted in the blog Talking Fish, “it seems obvious now that those who disagree with the assessments will never agree. They no longer seem to only be blaming faulty assessments but the foundation of science itself.”

Unfortunately, such intransigence isn’t limited to Gulf of Maine cod.

In New Jersey, some recreational fishermen, abetted by various elected and appointed officials, are challenging NMFS’ most recent update of the summer flounder stock assessment.

Based on such update, which shows that summer flounder have experienced poor recruitment for six consecutive years, and that the population has declined to just 58% of its target level, scientists have determined that the annual catch limit must be reduced by 30% to avoid driving the stock into an overfished state.

In January, a group of New Jersey congressmen wrote to then-Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzger, requesting that the annual catch limit not be cut. According to columnist Al Ristori, writing for the website, the congressmen asked that NMFS “reexamine its methodologies and conduct a new benchmark summer flounder stock assessment before making any decision to reduce summer flounder quotas.”

Ristori said that proposed regulations “would all be an economic disaster for the N.J. [summer flounder] fishery, and many experts believe they are not necessary for a fishery which appears to be in relatively good condition. The goals set for full recovery were established on questionable data from long before there was management of the fishery—and may not be attainable.”

Such comments are effectively indistinguishable from the comments that New England fishermen made about cod….

Further down the coast, the same sort of things are being said about South Atlantic red snapper. A stock assessment released in April 2016 indicated that the spawning stock biomass, although slowly increasing, remained low—about 22% of the spawning stock biomass target.

Neither commercial nor recreational fishermen were allowed to harvest South Atlantic red snapper in 2016, in order to account for account for excessive mortality the year before, when fishermen killed more than twice the annual catch limit. The season may remain closed through 2017.

The season closure angers fishermen and for-hire vessel operators, who are seeing more snapper than they had in past years, and are confusing a stock that has improved from dismal to somewhat less dismal abundance with a truly recovered population.

A recent article on the website of TC Palm, published in southeastern Florida, quoted charterboat captain Glenn Cameron, who complained, “I think [red snapper are] brutally mismanaged. I believe the stock assessments are asinine. I don’t know where they collect their data, but there are productive bottom fishing spots I used to go to and don’t anymore due to all the red snapper there. I can’t catch any mutton snapper, mangrove snapper or grouper in some spots because it’s been polluted with red snapper.”

Another captain, Rich Kluglein, agrees, saying “It’s gotten pretty silly…They are on every rock along the 27 Fathom Curve. I’ve caught them as shallow as 55 feet of water.”

Again, it sounds a lot like what the New England cod fishermen are saying.

Yet all indications suggest that the New England cod fishermen are completely wrong.

There are no indications that the fishermen who pursue Mid-Atlantic summer flounder or South Atlantic red snapper are any more right.

Some fishermen will believe what they choose to believe, regardless of the facts that fisheries managers are more than happy to provide them.

But the nice thing about facts is that they remain true, whether one chooses to believe them or not.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

1 comment on “Sadly, NMFS’ Assessment Was Right

  1. A comparison to the flounder fishery to the cod situation in the Gulf of Maine is a crock. You trying to lump all fishermen into a group that just rejects all science. It’s stage that the stock assessment that was on a steady incline until six years ago. Strangely that’s the same time that noaa bought their new vessel to do the survey. I find it ironic that the managers want to raise the size limit to 19 inches in New Jersey when it is a scientific fact that fish that size and larger are female and are the breeding stock. Maybe they should hire local commercial fishermen to do the survey with the actual gear that they use to catch these fish and then we may be able to get a reliable count. It would also be better accepted by the local fishing community.

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