The cod population in the Gulf of Maine is plummeting more steeply than previously thought, according a new assessment by the federal agency that monitors the fishing industry.
Underwater surveys conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that the iconic species has dwindled to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population.
That’s down from between 13 and 18 percent in the last assessment, completed in 2011.
“This is pretty dire,” said Russell Brown, deputy science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the branch of NOAA that did the research.
Making matters worse, he said, is that the latest assessment found very few young fish, reflecting paltry spawning rates. The estimated number of cod in the region is now at an all-time low.
“We’re deeply concerned about the fish stocks, and we’re also deeply concerned about the fishermen and communities that depend on the stock,” Brown said. “I think our findings would lead to recommendations that we need to be very careful about subjecting the stock to any additional fishing mortality.”
Brown will present the data next week to the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing issues in the region. He said he will ask that group to appoint independent scientists to review the findings before releasing all the data to the public.
The new analysis comes after previously grim assessments two years ago led the fishery council to cut by 80 percent the overall annual fishing quota for cod in the gulf.
Those cuts led Congress this year to appropriate $32.8 million in aid to ground fishermen in New England, much of it going to Massachusetts.
The new assessment relied on new catch, survey, and age data, Brown said. But some fishermen have cast doubt on NOAA’s surveys and questioned the latest report.
“My number one concern is that it doesn’t match with what we’re seeing on the water,” said Terry Alexander, a council member and a fisherman from Harpswell, Maine, who has caught cod for nearly 40 years.
He argued that some of the catch data might be inaccurate, as a result of the low fishing quotas.
“I’m going to look at this all with a cautious eye,” Alexander said. “The implications could be huge.”
E.F. “Terry” Stockwell, chairman of the council, called the new assessment “disheartening” and said it sparked “serious concern.”
“Over the years, as this stock has continued to decline, the council has repeatedly cut cod catches to promote stock rebuilding,” he said in a statement. “At the same time, we have been very aware of the huge economic consequences shouldered by the fishing industry. As such, we are extremely disheartened about the current situation.”
Peter Baker, director for Northeast fisheries programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, an environmental advocacy group based in Philadelphia, said the latest data proved that the council needs to do more to protect habitats and spawning grounds. He urged the council to avoid opening areas now closed to cod fishing, as members are now considering for several large areas.
“Cod are going to go into commercial extinction if we don’t protect the habitat they need to spawn and survive,” he said. “Cutting catch limits without protecting habitat has proven to be a failure.”