Georges Bank cod drop by 25 percent

The cod population by weight on fabled Georges Bank, the premier fishing grounds off Massachusetts, has declined by almost 25 percent since 2001, according to preliminary federal data, despite the ever-tightening grip of restrictions on fishermen in the region’s decades-old fishing crisis.

The new report was discussed at a federal fisheries science meeting this week in Woods Hole. The results are likely to increase pressure on regulators from environmentalists to restrict fishermen further on one of their most lucrative finfish catches.

Officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which compiled the data, declined yesterday to comment on the report, saying the information had not been finalized or reviewed by peers. A working paper circulated at the meeting found that in 2001, cod on Georges Bank would amount to about 30,033 metric tons. In 2004, the figure amounted to only an estimated 22,564 metric tons, a fraction of what is needed for a sustainable, healthy population.

”This is supposed to be a rebuilding plan, not a depletion plan,” said Chris Zeman a lawyer for Oceana, an ocean advocacy group, who attended part of the meeting.

Tight restrictions have resulted in commercial fishermen bringing in the lowest-ever catch by weight of Georges Bank cod in 2004.

The news wasn’t all bad: There is a relatively large stock of juvenile fish on the bank, fish that can seed the next generation, according to the working paper. But environmentalists say that any decline in the overall cod population is too great.

Fishing representatives at the meeting challenged environmentalists’ conclusion, saying the report did not take into consideration a new round of tough fishing restrictions that went into place last year.

These new rules, they say, appear to be working to turn around Georges Bank cod. Plus, they said, regulators predicted there would be a decline of cod before stocks rebounded.

”It is too early to be yelling helter skelter, the sky is falling,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition.

”We are still digesting the information. It is still being vetted.”

Georges Bank cod was once the stuff of legend, driving New England’s early economic engine, with fish so plentiful some reports said Colonial fisherman could scoop them out of the sea in baskets.

The fish was so prized in New England that its image was carved in staircases and immortalized in poems. But fishermen devised ways of catching fish far more rapidly than cod could reproduce, causing the stock to hit severe lows in the mid-1990s.

While Georges Bank cod recovered somewhat from 1995 to 2001 after tough restrictions were placed on fishermen, the counts began sliding again soon afterward.

However, the decline was not believed to be as steep as was indicated in the new report.

Overall, restrictions have helped some stocks, such as haddock. But cod in Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine has been difficult to coax back to sustainable levels. Last year, regulators placed new rules on Georges Bank cod fishermen that reduced the number of days they can fish and halved the pounds of cod they can land.

Environmentalists decried regulators’ approach to Georges Bank cod with the new rules, saying even more restrictions were needed to get the cod back to healthy levels. The Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group, sued the federal government in part over the issue, but lost.

Yesterday, however, representatives of the foundation said that the data show that their concerns were justified and that they feared that the stocks are in such a precarious state that they may not recover.

Other environmentalists said they want new curbs to protect the young fish.

”We really feel it may be too late to bring them back,” said Roger Fleming, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff