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Concerns about fish population counts fueled Baker’s fisherman story

The issue that Charlie Baker was talking about when he broke down during Tuesday’s debate with gubernatorial rival Martha Coakley referred to a longstanding argument of Massachusetts fishermen: that the state should do more to review the science that goes into estimating the size of fish populations, rather than relying on assessments by the federal government.

Baker, in comments following his story about an encounter with a fisherman who regretted bringing his two sons into the vocation, suggested new federal catch limits are unnecessarily hurting the state’s fishermen.

“We have some of the most talented people in the world who could do analytics around what’s really happening out there in the water,” he said. “We should be all over this.”

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He added: “In terms of going after the fundamental question of what’s going on out there in the water, I feel we have not done a good job at all as a commonwealth. I’ll tell you something, as governor, I’ll be all over that one.”

Fishermen from New Bedford to Gloucester have argued for years that federal scientists are relying on shoddy science to determine catch limits, especially for cod, the region’s iconic species.

Coakley last year filed a lawsuit against the federal government after regulators reduced the amount of cod that can be caught in the Gulf of Maine by nearly 80 percent. She argued those cuts were based on “flawed science,” even though repeated assessments by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shown that the cod population has plummeted to historic lows in the Gulf of Maine.

Environmentalists, however, have argued that the federal government has not done enough to curb overfishing and bolster the cod population.

In August, the agency released its latest assessment that found the cod population had plummeted more steeply than previously thought. The surveys 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.

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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. In 1982, by comparison, the region’s fishermen caught 22,000 metric tons of cod.

As a result of the new assessment, the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region’s fishing industry, recommended last month that NOAA take emergency action to halt the precipitous decline of cod, which could include even more drastic quotas or a moratorium on all cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine.

To help fishermen throughout the region adjust to new cod quotas, Congress this year appropriated $32.8 million in aid to ground fishermen in New England, much of it going to Massachusetts.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.