PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - In a move that could bring increased hardship to an already struggling industry, a regional body that oversees fishing issues from Cape Cod to northern Maine voted yesterday to recommend that the federal government reduce substantially the amount of cod local fishermen can catch.
After a heated debate, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to recommend that the US Department of Commerce reduce the amount of cod fishermen in the Gulf of Maine can catch by as much as 4 million pounds, or about 20 percent less than the current year.
“They took a responsible course,’’ said Samuel Rauchm director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who will consider during the next few months exactly where to set next year’s fishing limit.
At the meeting, a succession of cod fishermen said the proposed cuts, which come after scientists recently found the amount of cod in the region’s waters were much lower than previously estimated, would have a dire impact on their ability to stay in business.
“So many boats are already on the verge of bankruptcy, I don’t know if this even matters,’’ said Ed Barrett, a commercial fisherman from Plymouth, Mass. “Whether it’s 10 percent or 20 percent, the reduction is going to push a lot of us over the edge.’’
The vote bought local fisherman some time, as the council asked federal regulators to take emergency steps to avoid steeper cuts. The council could have voted to ban cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine.
In a survey three years ago, scientists estimated there were 33,877 metric tons of adult cod in the Gulf of Maine in 2007. But when scientists reassessed the data last year, they revised their estimate to 10,778 metric tons, about 68 percent less cod than they had previously thought were in the Gulf of Maine.
The revised numbers set off alarms about the size of the local cod population and what fishermen should be allowed to catch.
Scientists estimate there should be about 61,218 metric tons of cod for a maximum sustainable yield, or a healthy population. The stock is considered overfished if it falls to half that level. The most recent assessment estimates there were only 11,868 metric tons of adult cod in the Gulf of Maine in 2010, or about 20 percent of what is considered a healthy population.
Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a Democrat who represents Gloucester, Mass., in the House, said the debate reflected more of a “crisis about the standards of science than a crisis of overfishing.’’
“I think the unfortunate situation is that we don’t have reliable science,’’ she said. “We’re looking at two reports that differ by 80 percent in their estimate [of the cod population] . . . and this cut of 20 percent will put the majority of the small boat fleet out of business.’’
Council officials and environmental advocates, however, said there were significant changes in the most recent assessment that led scientists to realize the previous estimate of Gulf of Maine cod population was wrong.
“The latest assessment was much more comprehensive,’’ said Patricia Fiorelli, a council spokeswoman. “We were compelled to use that information, even if there are questions about it.’’
It’s not clear how much a cut of 20 percent would take from the bottom line of local cod fishermen, but members of Congress across New England have urged the US federal government to help affected fishermen.
In a statement this week, 19 New England lawmakers urged Commerce Secretary John Bryson to have his department set the 2012 catch levels for Gulf of Maine cod at “a level that would allow the industry to survive.’’
“We know that you can’t plunk down a reduction in catch limits without data and information that people can trust and without an economic plan to make sure people aren’t getting hurt,’’ US Senator John F. Kerry said. “We’ve got to take steps now to ensure the health and long-term stability of our fishery, and I’m gearing up to make sure that any decision goes hand in hand with economic help. We do it for farmers, you have to do the same for fishermen.’’
US Senator Scott Brown said: “No one understands the condition of that stock better than the fishermen who are out there every day. When they say that they believe the [government’s] cod assessment is based on flawed data, I believe [the government] ought to listen to them and make sure they get the science right.’’
The proposed cuts in the cod catch come a year after strict federal rules took effect to limit the overall catch of local fishermen. The Massachusetts fishing industry supports some 77,000 jobs.
But fishermen say they continue to struggle and worry about the new limits on cod.
As he left the meeting, Patrick Paquette said he thought fishermen got the best outcome possible. “The cuts could have easily been a lot worse,’’ he said.David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.