Feds turn down Kerry request for cod assessment 

The nation's oceans chief has turned down a request made first by U.S. Sen. John Kerry for a new assessment of the health of Gulf of Maine cod.

New data indicate cod is badly overfished, and fishermen now face ruinous cuts in their catch of up to 90 percent from 2010 levels. The data have drawn skepticism from fishermen because they show a reversal from numbers in a major 2008 study that indicated the cod was healthy and getting stronger.

In December, Kerry asked for a new cod assessment that fishermen can trust.

But in a Jan. 9 letter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco said that a new assessment can't be done in time for managers to make decisions for the May start of the fishing year.

She also said the agency doesn't yet have new data needed to move ahead with a new study, such as results from an upcoming spring sampling of stocks of groundfish, which are bottom-dwelling species, including cod.

"Simply repeating the current assessment, in the absence of this additional information, is not likely to answer the critical questions we all have about why this fish stock has declined so rapidly, assuming the results are supported by peer review," she wrote.

Lubchenco said the agency is "fully willing" to complete a new assessment once it has the new scientific information that will make it worthwhile. In the meantime, she wrote, NOAA is focusing on various management steps that can help fishermen survive potential reductions in the catch.

Major cuts in an important fish such as cod would also severely limit fishing on the other groundfish species, such as flounder and haddock, in order to protect the cod they swim among.

Lubchenco assured Kerry she is committed to helping fishermen.

"I fully understand the potential severity of the situation and we are committed to working with your office and all of our partners to ensure the sustainability of both the resource and our fishing communities," she said.

Kerry said he's been clear that regulators can't propose cuts in catch without data that makes sense or a plan for economic assistance to make sure people aren't getting hurt.

"I'm gearing up to make sure that any decision goes hand in hand with economic help," he said. "We do it for farmers, you have to do the same for fishermen if you're going to ask them to fish less."

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