In a move that will bring increased hardship to an already struggling industry, federal regulators on Monday substantially reduced the amount of cod that local fishermen will be able to catch for the fishing season that begins next month.
After a heated debate over the past few months that pitted fishermen against environmental advocates who have warned about the potential demise of the local cod population, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut the amount of cod that fishermen in the Gulf of Maine can catch by more than 4 million pounds, or 22 percent less than in 2011.
The cut, which follows the steepest reductions recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council in February, will take effect May 1.
“These measures are necessary to respond to the change in stock conditions,’’ said Alan Risenhoover, acting deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at NOAA, who called the 2012 limits “a transitional catch’’ that might require significantly deeper cuts in 2013. “The stock is overfished and is not rebuilding as planned.’’
To end overfishing, he said, this year’s catch would actually have to be slashed by more than 80 percent, but that would have devastated the local fishing industry.
Last fall, scientists who study New England’s most storied fish - a wooden “Sacred Cod’’ has hung in the State House for more than 200 years - found major errors in a federal analysis that three years before had shown the local cod stock was healthy and regenerating.
The most recent assessment estimates there were only 26 million pounds of adult cod in the Gulf of Maine in 2010, about 19 percent of what scientists say is necessary for a healthy population.
NOAA said Monday that local fishermen could catch no more than 14.8 million pounds of cod in the Gulf of Maine.
Risenhoover said regulators would spend the next year conducting another assessment and seeking ways to offset the economic pain for fishermen, which is still likely to amount to millions of dollars in lost revenues.
Local cod fishermen said they could live with the cuts but questioned the federal assessments, which they worry could augur the end of the industry.
“It’s not devastating. I’ll still be able to go fishing,’’ said Greg Walinski, who has been fishing cod out of Dennis and Harwich for the past three decades.
He said he expects NOAA’s decision will translate into a 10 percent cut in his cod catch.
“We’re just hoping they can take the time to do a review of the science, because we don’t have a lot of faith in the science,’’ he said. “I don’t think the stocks are a grave concern. But if the science is right, we’ll be completely out of business.’’
NOAA also announced that it would allow commercial fishermen to carry over 10 percent of their uncaught 2011 quota for the coming fishing season. The agency also said it would allow recreational fishermen to keep cod as small as 19 inches, down from 24 inches, which they said would reduce the amount of dead fish tossed overboard.
When asked whether delaying steeper cuts could have detrimental effects on the long-term viability of the local cod, Risenhoover said: “It’s a concern we have.’’ But he said scientists found that “the long-term effect isn’t so great that we should be overly concerned.’’
“Our goal is to reduce the level of overfishing,’’ he said. “This will allow the spawning stock biomass to increase over the year. We’re looking for it to level off.’’
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents the fishing industry, said in a statement that the new fishing limit would hurt fishermen from Provincetown to Port Clyde, Maine.
“This is a substantial reduction for a fishery that is already in a state of severe financial stress,’’ she said. “Virtually all vessel sizes, gear types, and ports-of-call will suffer.’’
Conservation groups, while noting the pain of fishermen, argue that more needs to be done. They say regulators are not only delaying the pain but exacerbating it by allowing the stocks to be depleted even further, potentially making it harder for the cod to rebound.
They noted how similar delays in curtailing the catch in Canada resulted in a moratorium on fishing cod off Newfoundland that is now 20 years old.
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, said NOAA should have banned cod fishing for large boats that can remain at sea for weeks at a time, as they take a larger share of fish and make it harder for the smaller, coastal boats to stay in business.
“This was a decision that was more driven by politics than good management or significant science,’’ said Shelley. “The more overfishing that is allowed on May 2012, the deeper the cuts in May 2013, and the greater the risk that the Gulf of Maine cod population will slip into a long term [decadal] biological slump.’’