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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

North Atlantic Cod Stocks

Air Date: Week of

Fishermen in the Gulf of Maine have requested that the Commerce Dept. review the current catch limit for cod. They say fish stocks have recovered. But scientists who manage fish argue that cod stocks remain depleted. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Frank Mirachi , a Massachusetts fisherman, and Steve Murowski, a scientist from the National Marine Fisheries Service, about the discrepancies in the numbers.


CURWOOD: US Commerce Secretary William Daley has temporarily upped the amount of cod that boat operators in the Gulf of Maine can catch from 30 to 100 pounds a day. Fisheries scientists say continued restrictions on cod are needed because stocks in the Gulf remain low. On the other hand, some captains say they're catching so much cod they have to throw a lot of it back into the sea. They want the limit raised to 700 pounds. Managing the ocean in a way that is ecologically sound and commercially viable has long proven difficult, and disputes between fishing boat operators and scientists over numbers are not new. We asked a Massachusetts captain, Frank Mirarchi, and a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at Woods Hole, Steve Murowski, to help explain the differences. Mr. Murowski believes that the cod situation is dire enough to warrant the extremely low catch limit.

MUROWSKI: One of the things that we noticed is, for the stock of cod in the Gulf of Maine, that its geographic range has shrunk dramatically from what we saw in the 60s and 70s, to the point where they seem to be concentrated in the area from the tip of Cape Cod up to approximately Gloucester, Massachusetts. And this is very much different from the historic pattern, where we had small spawning groups occupying the area along the Maine Coast and New Hampshire, etc. When you fish in a core area, sometimes the catch rates can even increase as the stock overall is declining.

CURWOOD: Frank, let me turn to you, now. You fish out of Scituate, Massachusetts, right?


CURWOOD: And how long have you been fishing? I mean, over how many years would you say?

MIRARCHI: I've been fishing for 35 years.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you've got some history here, too. How's the cod fishing compare this year over historical years for you?

MIRARCHI: We saw a great decline in cod catches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and rather abruptly, about 1997 I would say, the catches began to increase fairly dramatically, to the point where we're catching cod at a rate that I haven't seen in probably 20 years, this year.

CURWOOD: So, are the scientists right about this? Or are they full of it? If you are having trouble avoiding catching that much fish, do you feel that the fish are really out there and the scientists got this wrong?

MIRARCHI: No. I, first of all, from my personal experience, have no ability to refute him, because I fish primarily in the area that we've agreed is the core habitat of the cod. We, however, fish commercially, differently than the scientists do their surveys. We go out to our favorite fishing hole, so to speak, and we target the areas that we know contain fish. And in fact, if that fishing hole happens to be the core range of a contracting stock of cod, indeed we will catch more cod, and that's what we're seeing. But a number of other things appear to be happening. One thing is that the age structure of the fish seems to be rebuilding. In other words, we've gone from catching all very small, very young fish, to catching a mix of young and old fish. Another thing that seems to be happening and is fairly recent vintage is that the range seems to be expanding, and that the high catches last year were accruing in only a very few small, select spots. But now these cod seem to be spreading out to an area that pretty much encompasses the entire area where I fish, not just a point here and a point there, you know, dots on the map.

CURWOOD: Is the answer here to raise the trip limit?

MIRARCHI: There's no easy solution. It would be nice to say let us land more cod, but in all probability the scientific advice is sound. So I'm willing to make some short-term sacrifices, but still I want those sacrifices to be productive. And going out and tossing dead cod back to save the cod, to me, is not productive, so I think we need to look at some other means of protecting the cod than simply setting an extraordinarily low and probably impossible to achieve catch level.

CURWOOD: Let me turn back to you, Steve. I mean, this seems really crazy. If fish are being thrown away that are dying, shouldn't you be trying another approach?

MUROWSKI: Yeah. Nobody likes regulatory discards. In fact, our agency has an explicit policy against it. This is a wasteful practice. But part of the reason that the council went to a low trip limit was basically to see if they could have it so low that there wouldn't be any reason to go out and target cod. The ultimate goal is to reduce fishing mortality rates to sustainable levels. We have to look at how regulations interact with fishermen's behavior.

CURWOOD: In other words, your agency was saying, by putting a 30-pound-a-day limit on this, what, three or four or five fish, don't go out there and fish at all.

MUROWSKI: I think the council's intent of putting a low trip limit on was to discourage or try to end directed fishing on cod, and make it just a bycatch.

CURWOOD: So, why not just shut this fishery down altogether? It sounds like you don't really want people to go looking for cod, so why not say you can't fish for cod?

MUROWSKI: Well, there are low fishing mortality rates that we could have that would allow rebuilding of the stock, and it really is a societal question of whether or not we want to completely shut this fishery down, with the attendant social problems, and wait for it to rebuild, or have some low level of continued fishing on the stock. And that really is a question that the fishery managers, the councils, and politicians are involved with.

CURWOOD: I know that thought probably sends a chill up your spine, Frank, to think of just shutting the fishery down. But what do you think?

MIRARCHI: I think it would be a very, very unfortunately decision to do. A number of things are going on now in the fishery that I find very disturbing. We're basically losing our young people; there are no young people coming into the fishery. In addition, we're losing our support infrastructure. We now have four ice plants servicing the entire state of Massachusetts where there used to be a dozen of them. Fish piers are disappearing. The market for fish is being displaced from New England-caught fish to fish caught somewhere else. We don't want to lose this social and economic underpinning of our fishery, in my opinion, because we'll never get it back again.

CURWOOD: Okay, gentlemen Given this difference between what people who fish see and people who do science see, how can these views be brought together? How can you guys collaborate and get the same understanding? Is it possible? Go ahead, Frank.

MIRARCHI: I believe it is. I really think that we need to reinstitute a program of domestic observers that has kind of fallen into disuse, to more closely monitor and to relay a separate data source of information to the scientists, which may or may not verify what I'm telling you in terms of our catches. But at least it's an objective and unbiased source of information that's independent of the government-sponsored survey.

CURWOOD: Okay. Steve?

MUROWSKI: Well, I agree that there is a substantial role for fishermen to be more heavily involved in the research on a day to day basis. The number of observations that commercial fishermen make is much greater than a broad-based survey like we do. And there's a role for integrating those kinds of information. I agree with Frank. So I think increasingly, you will see a move afoot to integrate commercial fishing into a research plan.

CURWOOD: Frank Mirarchi is a fisherman who fishes out of Scituate, Massachusetts. And Steve Murowski is with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Thank you both for coming.

MUROWSKI: Thank you.

MIRARCHI: Thank you.



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