HYANNIS — In an effort to halt the precipitous decline of the cod population, the council that oversees the region’s fishing industry recommended emergency action Wednesday to bolster the species in the Gulf of Maine.
They left the details about what to do to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which will decide how to respond by next month. But the recommendation could devastate fishermen across the region and put scores of them out of business. The question of quotas is so contentious that the council hired a police detail in case tensions boiled over.
“The point is it’s an emergency action, and we need to act quickly, given the grave condition of the cod stock,” said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a spokeswoman for NOAA, which monitors the fishing industry in federal waters.
The New England Fishery Management Council left it up to the agency whether to prohibit recreational fishing in the western part of the gulf, require federal observers on commercial boats in some areas of the gulf, and end a spate of exemptions to reduce the overall catch.
The agency may also cut the quota for cod. Two years ago, the council slashed the cod catch to 1,550 metric tons per year, 77 percent lower than the amount allowed in 2012.
Some of the proposals the council has considered would cut the catch to between 200 and 500 metric tons a year, by far the lowest on record.
When the council began monitoring the catch in 1982, by comparison, the region’s fishermen caught 22,000 metric tons of cod.
NOAA could also ban cod fishing altogether, as occurred in Newfoundland in the 1990s, when cod began disappearing there.
“I’m just shocked that things turned out this bad,” said Tom Nies, the council’s executive director, referring to the state of the cod population.
“All of these catch limits we set in recent years came from the science, and fishermen have caught less than those limits, and we’re still in the toilet.”
The cod population has plummeted more steeply than previously thought, according to an assessment in August by NOAA.
Surveys the agency conducted found that cod have dwindled to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. That is down from between 13 and 18 percent in the previous assessment, completed in 2011.
Making matters worse, the latest assessment found very few young fish, reflecting paltry spawning rates.
The number of cod in the region is now at an all-time low, estimated to be between 2,100 and 2,400 metric tons.
It is unclear exactly what has caused cod to vanish from local waters, but some have blamed overfishing and climate change.
A study this year by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute found that the Gulf of Maine is warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of the world’s other oceans.
Environmental groups urged NOAA to take drastic action to save the cod.
“This emergency action has to cut catch this year as low as possible and take all possible measures to protect larger spawning fish,” said Peter Shelley, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts.
“It is remarkable but not surprising that the council continues to abdicate its fundamental management responsibilities with respect to cod to the federal government.”
The previous cuts to cod quotas led Congress to appropriate $32.8 million in aid this year to ground fishermen in New England, much of it going to Massachusetts.
Fishermen at the meeting questioned the science and worried that NOAA’s decisions could destroy their livelihoods.
“It’s not even a question that I could be out of business,” said Rick Beal, a fisherman for 48 years out of Gloucester. “You can’t go fishing for nothing.”
Kevin Scola of Marshfield, a fisherman for 46 years, said he was fed up with the process.
“What we have is not working; it’s broken,” he said. “We’re going to lose everything.
“This whole industry is going to collapse, and they don’t care about that,” Scola said. “I ultimately think that’s what they want.”David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.