Striking a delicate balance

LAST WEEK’S decision by fishing regulators to reduce in the amount of cod that can be taken from the Gulf of Maine by 22 percent is an unfortunate, but necessary, move that should provide enough leeway for fishermen to prepare for potentially greater cuts in the future.

Overfishing of cod is an old story in New England, where stocks dwindled from 50 million pounds in 1990 to just 16 million in 1998. Under a 10-year set of limits enacted in 2004, the stocks were supposed to rebound to a healthy, sustainable level of 128 million pounds of adult fish by 2014. However, scientists estimated this winter that there are still only 26 million pounds of spawning cod in the gulf. Even if no fishing were allowed the next two years, stocks would not reach their target by 2014.

That left the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, long vilified by many fishermen, and often criticized by the Massachusetts congressional delegation, with an extremely difficult problem: How to further reduce fishing levels without destroying the livelihood of the fleet. Its decision, working with recommendations from the New England Fishery Management Council, was to issue a one-year cut of 22 percent, to give the fleets time to prepare for a larger cut in 2013.


Given how devastating that could be, NOAA wisely plans to step up its efforts to ensure the accuracy of its stock assessments, working with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. But even if that process leads to a welcome increase in the estimated stock, a full cod recovery appears far enough off that the industry should accelerate its efforts to modify gear to catch other types of fish, such as redfish, that could find a growing market.

Predictably, NOAA’s decision was criticized by some fishermen as going too far and some environmentalists as not going far enough. But others on each side praised the agency for striking a proper balance. Many fishermen said the cut still leaves them in business, and at least one environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund, said it was “the right call for both the groundfishery and the fishing economy.’’