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Back in Colonial times, commercial cod fishing comprised a principal component of the New England economy as the abundant fish showed up regularly on dinner tables from New London to New Bedford, but last week's recommendation by federal authorities to impose drastic limits on the catch could all but kill of an industry reeling in recent years because of severe declines in the groundfish population.
"We are headed, slowly, seeming inexorably, to oblivion," John Bullard, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said during a meeting of New England Fishery Management Council in Portsmouth, N.H. Mr. Bullard is a member of the council that voted to recommend reductions of 77 percent from last year's cod catch in the Gulf of Maine for each of the next three years.
This newspaper understands the angry response severe restrictions provoked among those whose families have earned their living from the sea for generations - "I'm leaving here in a coffin," one fisherman from New Bedford, Mass., complained - but the council had no viable options.
Marine scientists reported that the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine has dropped to only about 18 percent of what is considered a healthy population. Numbers are even worse in Georges Bank, one of the principal fishing grounds off Cape Cod - only 7 percent.
In addition to recommending reductions for each of the next three years for cod in the Gulf of Maine, the council supported cuts of 61 percent from last year for one year only to the cod catch on Georges Bank. If approved this would translate to a reduction in the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine from 8,000 metric tons a decade ago to 1,550 metric tons a year for the next three years, and from 12,000 to 8,000 metric tons in Georges Bank.
At its 2001 peak the industry made about $100 million, compared to about $80 million last year. If approved by federal managers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the new limits would further reduce the value of next year's catch to about $55 million.
Even if the cod came back, authorities would have to resolve the ongoing issue of new technologies and larger trawlers that have made fishing so efficient, hastening depletion of the species.
In addition, warmer waters due to climate change have impacted the cod, a cold-water fish.
We encourage NOAA to adopt the restrictions, as painful as they will be to New England fishermen, since they are the best way to give cod, now on the verge of extinction, a chance to replenish.
At the same time, the government must consider offering relief to fishermen and related workers whose livelihoods will be impacted by the reductions.
After all, the government provides similar subsidies to dairy farmers and other agricultural interests in response to changing market conditions.
Without such supplemental backing they will be forced to sell boats, shutter processing plants and otherwise dismantle an industry that may not be able to rebound.