Fisheries scientists reported this week that despite the tightest fishing regulations in history, cod stocks on Georges Bank declined as much as 23 per cent between 2001 to 2004. And when the numbers are counted for 2005, the picture may be even worse.
Commercial landings of Georges Bank cod by fishermen have also seen a precipitous drop. Fishermen landed 12,330 metric tons in 2001. Last year, the landings dropped to 4,583 metric tons - the lowest recorded in the history of cod fishing.
"This is much worse than I expected," said Priscilla Brooks, a spokesman for the New England Conservation Law Foundation, a conservation group that has been critical of the management of fish stocks for years.
Preliminary numbers were released by the National Marine Fisheries Service during a weeklong meeting of scientists in Woods Hole. A working paper was circulated during the meeting.
Obtained by the Gazette yesterday, the paper contains reams of data on cod stocks and landings in Georges Bank.
"Georges Bank Atlantic cod are overfished and overfishing is occurring," the paper declares. "Fishing mortality has been steadily declining since 1997, except for a slight increase in 2001, and is currently at the lowest exploitation in the time series," it also says.
Environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation, Oceana, Marine Fish Conservation Network are now engaged in a concerted effort to bring back the cod through better management of the fishery.
Cod is the state fish and was once considered the most valuable natural resource in the commonwealth.
Ms. Brooks, who is the director of the foundation's marine conservation program, said she saw the working paper and found the numbers distressing. "They are reporting a near 25 per cent decline in adult cod since 2002, that puts cod stocks close to the lowest it has ever been. It also shows that cod are one tenth what scientists are calling a healthy abundance level," she said.
The working paper found that the 1999 and 1998 year class accounts for the majority of the United States catch of cod, and the 1998 year class accounts for the majority of the Canadian catch in 2004. A year class is fish spawned in that year.
The future of the stock depends on juvenile fish, and scientists report that if overfishing continues, there is no year class large enough to sustain the fish.
According to the paper, commercial fishing landings in 2004 totaled 4,583 metric tons, or about 10 per cent of what fishermen landed in 1968 when stocks were considered healthy. In the 1960s and early 1970s cod was fished intensively by domestic and foreign fishing trawlers.
Teri Frady, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the team of scientists will formally release its data next month to the New England Fishery Management Council. The council adopts regulations to control fishing and is under a congressional mandate to manage fish stocks and make them sustainable in the years ahead.
Steps taken in the last decade have been strict, and some say Draconian, causing economic hardship for fishermen along the Eastern seaboard. Vast areas of open sea have been closed to fishing, including an estimated 6,600 square miles of Georges Bank, the fabled rich fishing ground that has sustained New England fishermen for decades. Fishing has been limited on average to 50 days per year, to help protect the fish stocks. But the information circulating this week shows that the regulations are not enough.
Fisheries scientists who met this week are charged with making assessments on 19 different stocks of groundfish fish found on Georges Bank.
The last assessment was done in 2002. The next report will be done in 2008.
"They will estimate what fishing mortality was in 2004 and provide estimates for 2005 stock. We will be able to see how well the fish stocks are performing relative to the plan," Ms. Frady said.
Because the numbers circulated this week were preliminary, she would not comment on them.
But Ms. Brooks said Gulf of Maine cod stocks are also down. "Everyone involved in fishing was hopeful for a positive sign there," she said.