Fisheries Roundtable Focuses on Protection

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August 2010

A recent Fisheries Roundtable discussion at the Portsmouth Public Library highlighted the need to protect cod and winter flounder populations that spawn in the Gulf of Maine.

The New England Fishery Management Council is currently developing Framework 45, part of the multispecies fishery management plan that deals with spawning cod populations.

Speakers weighed in on the results from collaborative research on cod and winter flounder at the Aug. 26 event. The Fisheries Roundtable series is sponsored by N.H. Sea Grant and The Northeast Consortium.

Annie Hawkins, groundfish analyst for the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC), gave a brief overview of some of the management items proposed for Framework 45. Fisheries managers are working to refine the areas where cod spawning occurs and include those areas in seasonal closures that will protect groups of spawning fish, or 'aggregations,' in the Gulf of Maine.

"The idea of managing spawning areas for cod is a major shift in how we've previously managed the species," said Mike Armstrong, assistant director of the fisheries biology section of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. The old paradigm, he explained, focused on decreasing the rate of fishing mortality by limiting fishing gear use, imposing trip and catch limits, curtailing days at sea, and closing off certain areas to fishing. Although this has helped to rebuild cod populations to some degree, Armstrong said fisheries managers also need to recognize the importance of protecting spawning aggregations.

Hunt Howell, UNH professor of zoology, presented data and results from a few different studies on cod movements off the coast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, just south of the Isles of Shoals. Ipswich Bay is a well-known area for cod spawning, particularly near a series of raised bathymetric features called Whaleback. Cod in this area are heavily targeted by commercial and recreational fishermen.

Howell worked closely with UNH M.S. candidate in zoology Laughlin Siceloff and local fishermen to tag cod and track their movements. The fish aggregated in a relatively small area near Whaleback, Howell said, spending early May through June spawning. UNH graduate Chris Gurshin (Ph.D., zoology) worked with Howell and commercial fishermen to conduct sonar scans and trawling surveys that yielded similar results.

N.H. commercial fisherman Carl Bouchard worked with Howell aboard his boat the F/V Stormy Weather to collect these data. Bouchard said the cod caught near Whaleback are very large. "These are not run-of-the-mill fish," he explained. "These are old, mature, large adult cod, weighing up to 60-70 lbs. in many cases."

Armstrong presented data results from tagging studies conducted off the coast of Massachusetts, south of Gloucester and about 2.5 miles off the coast from Salem and Boston. Due to heavy commercial and recreational fishing pressure, this area was closed during spawning in May and June for the first time in 2009. Armstrong fitted six cod with acoustic tags just before the fishery opened on July 1. Of the six cod that were tagged, half were caught in gill nets within hours of the fishery opening, while the other half left the area. The opening of the fishery caused 100% disruption of spawning, Armstrong said. The big unknown, however, is whether or not the behavior of these six fish would accurately reflect the behaviors of the entire population.

Regardless, Armstrong says this research indicates that cod spawning aggregates are vulnerable to overexploitation and disruptions of spawning behavior, and thus they are in need of full management protection.

"Protecting areas of known spawning aggregations is only half the picture," added N.H. commercial fisherman David Goethel. "We also need to proactively protect areas where we know cod used to be. The populations won't recover if every time a fish shows up someplace new, 100 boats descend upon it."

Although Framework 45 focuses mainly on cod, NEFMC groundfish analyst Tom Nies said it may be helpful to consider protecting other species that utilize similar areas for spawning. For example, winter flounder might be considered an overfished species in the Ipswich Bay area, Nies said. While Framework 45 is being developed, managers might also think about adding language that will protect winter flounder spawning areas as well.

To better inform this decision, Howell presented results from collaborative studies led by UNH research assistant professor of biological sciences Elizabeth Fairchild on winter flounder movements in Ipswich Bay. Despite the general assumption that flounder spawn in estuaries, Howell said that does not seem to be the case in northern New England. UNH trawl surveys conducted in Hampton-Seabrook Estuary in 2006 yielded no adult winter flounder, he said, and NOAA surveys show the largest winter flounder aggregations in coastal areas rather than near estuaries. Further, Fairchild's research showed that only six of the 40 acoustically tagged winter flounder entered an estuary in N.H. or Mass. during the study period.

"Although the estuaries are important adult feeding areas and juvenile nursery grounds, they may not be important spawning grounds north of Cape Cod," Howell said.

The data presented at the meeting, along with audience comments, will be taken into account when drafting the final version of Framework 45. Annie Hawkins from the NEFMC said she hopes to have some management rules in place by next May. Audio recordings from this Fisheries Roundtable discussion will be available soon on the Northeast Consortium and N.H. Sea Grant web sites.

Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant Science Writer