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NOAA Fisheries to the Rescue?

Just when you think federal fisheries management can’t get any more confusing, NOAA Fisheries pops out a solution to a problem that is truly baffling, especially when viewed against recent decisions to dramatically limit recreational catch in other regions. Last weekNOAA announced that fishermen will be allowed to catch up to 6,700 metric tons of Gulf of Maine cod in 2012. The statement from NOAA read:

NOAA and the New England Fishery Management Council, which includes state officials and fishermen, worked with the fishing industry to identify flexibility within federal fisheries law that could both protect cod and provide sustained fishing opportunities. As a result, the quota for 2012 will be set at 6,700 metric tons, which is within the range recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council. Without this collaborative approach, the catch limit for this fishing year would have been set below 1,500 metric tons. This is the end result of collaborative work with the fishing industry to find a solution that prevented a much larger cut to the allowable catch for the 2012 fishing year.

The condensed version of the back story to this amazing turn of events includes an assessment in 2006 that showed Gulf of Maine cod were on the path to recovery, and everyone was happy. In 2011, a new assessment using new techniques showed quite the opposite, shocking everyone involved in the fishery. Based on the 2011 assessment, which was peer reviewed and accepted, the stock was and is in a serious decline. The fishery was looking at massive cuts in harvest, but with NOAA’s announcement last week, it appears that some mysterious “flexibility within federal fisheries law that could both protect cod and provide sustained fishing opportunities” allowed the New England Council to “salvage” a harvest for 2012 that is more than 300% greater than it was going to be otherwise.

Cod is the main reason Congress put hard deadlines and strict fishing limits into MSA in the first place, yet there is enough “flexibility” in the existing federal law to allow the posterfish for commercial excess to endure a 300% upward adjustment in the allowed harvest in spite of a year-old assessment that indicates it is borderline collapsed. On the other hand, NOAA Fisheries says its hands are tied regarding regulations on recreational fisheries like black sea bass in the South Atlantic and red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, fisheries that are recovering so well that anglers are tripping over fish and being penalized for catching too many.

The flexibility to do what NOAA Fisheries did in New England for cod has existed since the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) was reauthorized in 2006; NOAA Fisheries has simply refused to use that flexibility. Yet they chose to be “flexible” in a fishery which by all indications is in serious trouble, and stonewalled when asked to do the same in recreational fisheries that are in much better shape.  Herein lies one of the great mysteries that has made the debates over what to do to address problems associated with MSA so frustrating. Solutions are there and can somehow be applied, even temporarily, to one of the most chronically mismanaged commercial fisheries in the entire country. But in the Gulf, where anglers have a two-snapper limit and an absurd 40-day season, all we have to work with are threats of further reductions and more draconian management measures because the stock has rebounded so wildly that we catch too many big snapper too fast.

And NOAA wonders why the recreational angling community has trust issues with federal management.

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