A non-profit environmental law firm last week asked the federal government to place unprecedented limits upon Atlantic cod fishing in the Northeast, saying that the stocks have "commercially collapsed due to persistent mismanagement."

The Conservation Law Foundation took sharp aim at the 18-member New England Fisheries Management Council, saying the fisheries managers have failed to protect dwindling cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

The law foundation on Thursday petitioned the Trump administration to promulgate emergency rules to stop the "unlawful overfishing of New England’s Atlantic cod," saying the species is now "depleted to historic and alarming low levels of abundance."

The Boston-based lawyers accused the New England Fisheries Management Council of "decades of reckless decision-making." They further criticized the the National Marine Fisheries Service, saying the federal agency has rubber-stamped the "risk-prone" plans coming out of New England.

Their petition asks U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to prohibit all directed commercial or recreational cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine until certain measures are taken.

The measures include 100 percent at-sea monitoring, large area closures to protect spawning and habitat, and the use of modified groundfish gear throughout the entire range of Atlantic cod to reduce incidental catch.

“Our regional managers have lost control of and abandoned the cod fishery,” said Conservation Law Foundation senior counsel Peter Shelley. “After decades of reckless decision-making, Atlantic cod populations are now in crisis."

The New England Fisheries Management Council responded to the accusations on Friday.

"The Council recognizes that Gulf of Maine cod and Georges Bank cod are in poor shape and need rebuilding,” said Tom Nies, executive director of the NEFMC. “That is why we have reduced catches of Gulf of Maine cod by 90 percent and Georges Bank cod by 75 percent since 2011.”

Nies said the petition "glosses over" certain scientific uncertainties about the cod stocks. He also defended the process used to set catch limits.

“The Council has been acting in good faith to rebuild cod using the best scientific information available," Nies said.  "After every peer-reviewed stock assessment, a group of scientists who serve on the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee recommends the catch they think will prevent overfishing.  The Council always follows these recommendations.”

Nies said the council is working on several fronts to address uncertainties in cod assessments, such as participating in the Northeast Trawl Advisory Panel, which is working to improve at-sea surveys, and in the Cod Stock Structure Working Group, which works to better delineate the difference between the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod resources. In addition, he said, the Council is working to improve the monitoring of the fishery.

The law foundation copied its petition to the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Assessments show the Gulf of Maine cod stock at a historically low population level despite decades of efforts to rebuild it, and the Georges Bank cod stock is also considered to be imperiled, the petition states.  While other species have responded to rebuilding efforts, cod have not.

"Atlantic cod has been central to New England's social, cultural, and economic development since the 1600s and constitutes the oldest commercial fishery in the country," the petition reads. "Fishermen, fishing operations, and coastal communities, however, can no longer count on this once thriving fishery for their livelihood or for the long-term prosperity of their communities," the petition from the Conservation Law Foundation reads.

Mary Serreze can be reached at mary.serreze@townsquaremedia.com.

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