PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Fishery management officials meeting here on Wednesday voted to impose drastic new cuts to the commercial harvest of cod along the Atlantic coast, arguing that the only way to save the centuries-old cod fishing industry was to sharply limit it.
In the 1600s, the lowly cod was so abundant in the cold North Atlantic waters that, along with boatbuilding and timbering, it provided the foundation of the New England economy. In the 1700s, a “sacred cod” was bestowed on the State House in Massachusetts, where it hangs to this day as a symbol of the importance of cod fishing to the region.
But over recent decades, the once bountiful cod has been so depleted that government officials now say that it stands on the verge of extinction.
At a grim daylong session here, a deeply divided New England Fishery Management Council voted to recommend reductions of 77 percent from last year’s catch for each of the next three years for cod in the Gulf of Maine
It also recommended cuts of 61 percent from last year for one year only to the cod catch on Georges Bank, a vast area off Cape Cod, which was named for the fish
. The council’s recommendations are subject to approval by the federal government, which is expected to put them in place by May 1.
“We are headed, slowly, seeming inexorably, to oblivion,” said John Bullard, the regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a member of the council, as he explained his support for the catch limits. “I do not deny the costs that are going to be paid by fishermen, families, communities. They are real. They will hurt.”
The problem, he said, is not government inflexibility, as fishermen have suggested, but the lack of fish. “It’s midnight and getting darker when it comes to how many cod there are,” he said. “There isn’t enough cod for people to make a decent living.”
But opponents said the limits would not help save the industry.
“Right now what we’ve got is a plan that guarantees the fishermen’s extinction and does nothing to ameliorate it,” David Goethel, a New Hampshire-based fisherman and biologist, said as he cast his vote against the plan.
Fishermen were furious with the result.
“I’m leaving here in a coffin,” said Carlos Rafael, who owns a commercial fishing business in New Bedford, Mass. “With all these cuts, I won’t be able to keep half of my fleet working. I’ll have to cut down from 20 groundfish boats to maybe 5or 6.”
Before the vote, fishermen had crowded into the meeting room, many pleading that the limits not be set so low.
“We have done everything that has been asked of us,” said Paul Vitale, who fishes commercially in Gloucester, Mass. “I don’t want to go anywhere else for work, as demented as that sounds.”
The plan reduces the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine down to 1,550 metric tons a year for the next three years; the limit was 8,000 metric tons a decade ago. The catch in Georges Bank would drop to 2,002 metric tons, down from 12,000 from a decade ago.
“They’re huge, there’s no other way to describe it,” said Tom Nies, a fishery analyst for the council.
At its last peak in 2001, Mr. Nies said, the industry made about $100 million. It made about $80 million last year. The new limits could cut the size of the industry for this year to about $55 million, for a loss of $25 million.
But fishermen said the true impact of the cuts would go much deeper.
“It’s 80 percent of a really small number to begin with,” Mr. Goethe said. He said the actual loss to the industry would be more like $60 million. “When you get down to cuts that small, there’s simply no place to go,” he said.
Frank Mirarchi, a fisherman from Scituate, Mass., who primarily pursues groundfish, said that the proposed limits would deprive him of his living and that the cuts would ripple up and down the coast.
“This whole economy in this region is a really small microbusiness economy,” Mr. Mirarchi said. “The fuel guy, the ice guy, the guy that drives the fish truck from the landing port to the processing center, fish cutters — a job here, a job there,” he said. “It’s not like closing a big factory. It’s little jobs on nondescript piers that just kind of disappear and nobody notices.”
The limits come after years of what many scientists, managers and fishermen alike have said was mismanagement based on inconsistent or overly optimistic estimates of where fish stocks were, and how they could be rebuilt.
“I think the reality is that our understanding of where the stock is has changed,” Mr. Nies said. “We last assessed these stocks back in 2008 and we thought they were growing quite well, and so the quotas were going up. And then when we assessed them this year, we find out that they in fact have not grown as we expected.”
The United States has watched the near total collapse of cod stocks in Canada
. The demise of the fish populations was hastened by the widespread use of big trawlers equipped with radar and sonar systems that enhanced the ability to catch the fish. They expanded the area and depths that could be fished and sped up the process, diminishing the ability of the remaining fish stocks to replenish themselves.
The big trawlers also swept up other fish that had little commercial value but played important predator-prey roles in maintaining the ecological balance of the species. Today the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is at 18 percent of what scientists deem to be a healthy population; in Georges Bank, it is 7 percent.
While previous quota reductions have hurt fishermen, environmental advocates and even fishermen have said that, despite high groundfish prices, they are not landing their full quotas.
“We’re looking at landings that are the worst on record,” said Tom Dempsey, a fisherman and council member who voted for the cuts. “The problem with Georges Bank codfish is that it is a resource that is on the verge of collapse. It scares the hell out of a whole lot of people who build their business on Georges Bank codfish.”
According to NOAA’s Northeast Regional Office, fishermen have caught less than 30 percent of the 2012 allotment of Georges Bank cod to date and only slightly more than half of the allowable catch for the Gulf of Maine.
But some fishermen and environmentalists said that overfishing was not the only reason for the paucity of cod, with some putting part of the blame on climate change.
“We’re seeing a distinct ecosystem change,” Mr. Mirarchi said. “The water’s warmer. We’re seeing species that normally never come into the north lingering into the fall. Something else is going on besides just fishing.”