In an effort to halt dramatic declines in the cod population, federal officials overseeing the fishing industry on Monday announced unprecedented measures that effectively ban all commercial fishing of the region’s iconic species in the Gulf of Maine.
The new rules, which fishermen say will be devastating for their livelihood, will take effect this week and last for at least the next six months.
They expand areas where commercial fishing for cod was already banned and now also apply the ban to recreational fishermen. The restrictions reduce the allowed accidental catch of cod to just 200 pounds per boat, tighten reporting requirements, and reduce the size of nets that fishermen are allowed to use.
“We’re trying to absolutely shut down fishing where there are concentrations of cod, so there will be zero cod caught,” said John Bullard, Greater Atlantic regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Anything that can catch cod is not allowed in these areas.”
The temporary measures could be made permanent when the next fishing season begins in May, Bullard said.
The restrictions come after the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region, last year slashed the cod catch to 1,550 metric tons per year, 77 percent lower than the amount allowed in 2012.
Bullard said the council could reduce the allowed catch for next year to just 200 metric tons, 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.
Fishermen throughout the region questioned the need for the emergency measures and said they will have dire impacts on their livelihood.
“It’s all over,” said Joseph Orlando, who has been fishing for cod for more than 40 years out of Gloucester. “We can’t go fishing. We can’t leave the dock.”
He said he doesn’t know how he will feed his family. “If you can’t go fishing, what do you do?” he said. “I’m 60. Who’s going to hire me? I have no backup plan.”
David Goethel, who has been fishing for cod out of Hampton, N.H., since 1967, blamed the cuts on faulty science and called them “absolutely devastating.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay for health insurance, property taxes – anything,” he said. “We have no income.”
The restrictions did not come as a surprise.
In August, NOAA announced that an assessment of the cod fishery over the summer found the cod population had plummeted more steeply than previously thought. Its surveys, NOAA said, found cod had dwindled to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. That was down from between 13 and 18 percent in the last assessment in 2011.
Making matters worse, the government found few young fish, reflecting paltry spawning rates. The number of cod in the region is at an all-time low, estimated to be between 2,100 and 2,400 metric tons.
It is unclear 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 praised NOAA’s actions, saying drastic measures are necessary to save cod. They note that cod disappeared in the waters off Newfoundland 20 years ago and never returned.
“NOAA’s emergency action, while helpful and necessary, is a short-term response to a problem that will require a long-term solution to protect cod and the habitat they need to recover,” said Peter Baker, director of northeast oceans for Pew Charitable Trusts. “Healthy ocean habitat is where fish make more fish, and what New England needs now is more fish.”
He and others blamed the government and the council for not taking action sooner.
“The cod collapse is largely due to a long history of risky management decisions that failed to rein in chronic overfishing, did not keep accurate track of how many fish were caught or killed, and did not do enough to protect ocean habitat,” he said.
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, said he would like to have seen NOAA require fishermen to bring back all the fish they catch, rather than tossing overboard those that have died in their nets. He said that would have improved the government’s accounting.
Much of the cod sold in New England restaurants and supermarkets now comes from Iceland, Norway, and off the West Coast.
The ban also made sense to Lydia Shire, the chef at Boston’s popular Italian restaurant Scampo, at the Liberty Hotel. Shire said she favors cooking with haddock.
“I am for [the ban],” she said. “We need to reserve our fishing stock for generations. If that’s the smart thing to do, do it.’’
NOAA officials sought to cushion the blow to fishermen by increasing the quota for haddock, another species that feeds along the ocean floor. Its population has grown in recent years.
Congress has also tried to help. The previous cuts to cod quotas led lawmakers to appropriate $32.8 million in aid this year to groundfishermen in New England, much of it going to Massachusetts.
Local fishermen said the haddock increase will do little to help.
“The increase in haddock is irrelevant, because areas where fishermen fish for haddock will be closed,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents commercial groundfishermen throughout the region. “They’re claiming that that would mitigate the situation. But the reality is that it won’t.”
She and other fishermen argued that the government has improperly counted cod.
“The consequences of those assessments are severe,” Odell said. “Every commercial groundfishing business will be impacted by this.”