BOSTON (Reuters) - The price of an order of fish and chips at your local pub could jump this year after U.S. authorities slashed the amount of Gulf of Maine cod that New England's fishermen can haul in, as a way to protect the species from overfishing.
Fishing agencies and conservation groups are grappling with a recent assessment that 2010 cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine had fallen sharply and unexpectedly - a trend that threatens the long-term survival of the industry.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday set a 2012 limit for cod fishing in the waters of the Gulf of Maine that is down 22 percent at 6,700 metric tons, or about 14.8 million pounds.
The commercial fishing season starts on May 1.
"We are committed to continued evaluation of the current cod status and to working with our partners to develop a long-term rebuilding program that includes setting catch limits in 2013 that end overfishing," said Sam Rauch of NOAA's Fisheries Services.
The Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental group, had urged that a 4,000-ton limit be set for 2012, saying cod "is in a biological crisis."
It asked Commerce Secretary John Bryson in February for an interim emergency action to help stave off disaster for cod and the commercial fishermen who catch it - sometimes as part of family businesses going back generations.
The most recent assessment estimated there were 26 million pounds of adult cod in the Gulf of Maine in 2010, only about 20 percent of what scientists say is necessary for a healthy population.
"The numbers are so close to the bone that a couple of thousand metric tons of cod landed either way could spell the difference between a rebounding fishery and a total collapse," the group said.
The New England Fisheries Management Council, which manages fishery resources within the 200-mile federal limit off the U.S. coast from Maine to Connecticut and includes state officials and fishermen, backed a higher quota for 2011.
The level announced on Monday is at the low end of the range suggested by the council.
NOAA will make a new assessment of Gulf of Maine cod stocks this year, in time to set catch limits for 2013.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; editing by Christopher Wilson