Anyone who follows commercial fisheries will be aware that predictions of doom abound, chiefly arising from grim academic studies. “There will be nothing left in the ocean but jellyfish” is one such. That scientific paper garnered sensational headlines some time ago.

Generally fishermen are blamed for decimating fish stocks which, we are warned, can never recover.

It was interesting therefore to hear a presentation in Plymouth last Thursday by Dr. Russell Brown, a career NOAA Fisheries scientist with a specialty in population dynamics.

In 1994, Brown said, the haddock stock on Georges Bank was estimated to be at a critically low point, around 10,000 metric tons. Fishermen had a 500-pound trip limit and were trying to avoid them to catch cod.

A rebuilding target of 80,000 metric tons was set by fishery managers and large areas were closed to fishing. “We needed to rebuild the stock eightfold,” Brown said, “and we had prominent biologists who said that was not possible. They said there had been a regime shift and the stock will never be that productive again.”

Hopefully those prominent biologists did not forego their fish and chips on ethical grounds because in subsequent years the age-composition of the haddock stock grew steadily. As more of each year-class survived the spawning stock swelled. 1998 saw a very large increase and 2003 was a “monster year,” Brown said.

Today the biomass is estimated at 280,000 metric tons and fishermen are trying to avoid cod catching haddock. Unfortunately they are not enjoying a lot of reward because cod have become what is known as a “choke species.” New England has a multispecies groundfishery making it difficult to avoid catching fish other than the target species when they all swim together. Now the doom reports all concern the vanishing cod, even prompting calls from conservation groups for a ban on all fishing.

As it stands, groundfishermen have such a small cod allocation that they must stop fishing anyway when they exhaust it unless they can buy some cod quota elsewhere. This generally costs more than the price they receive when they land the fish. Fishermen on the Cape lost 7 cents a pound on cod last week, according to one fisherman present at the meeting. So all this raises legitimate questions about fishery management.

The Magnuson Stevens Act is the federal law that regulates our fisheries and is made up of ten national standards, the first of which seeks to prevent overfishing while obtaining “optimal yield” from each fishery. Management plans are in place for every species. While this is laudable it also creates conflict.

In protecting cod, New England fishermen are restricted to catching only a fraction of the haddock quota even though that stock is plentiful. Less than 9 percent in fishing year 2016, which runs from May 2016 to April 2017. At the beginning of this month the haddock catch was 1717 metric tons, only 3.3 percent of this year’s quota.

This represents a huge loss of value to the US economy and leaves a lot of healthy protein in the ocean.

With Earth’s population predicted to increase from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 we cannot continue to waste our natural resources on this scale.

These conflicts occur in other fisheries too. In the mid-Atlantic region windowpane flounder, a species with no commercial value, is choking fishing effort there, according to Brown, who pointed out that the decline of windowpane had nothing to do with fishing.

What’s the solution? According to Brown, a good place to start would be to look at managing the ecosystem as a whole rather than trying to rebuild each species to optimal yield under separate management plans, many of which impose arbitrary timelines on rebuilding. As one fisherman remarked, trying to achieve optimal levels for all stocks at the same time is a fool’s errand. Fish compete for forage and territory and if one stock thrives it often comes at the expense of another. Many other factors, such as changes in water temperature or salinity, can affect fish populations.

Discussions about reauthorizing the Magnuson Stevens Act are presently underway on Capitol Hill. It was last revised in 2007. A lot has changed since then and some more flexibility could and should be incorporated into it. And to counter the prophets of doom it is worth noting that the NOAA Fisheries' annual report to Congress on the status of US Stocks for 2016 found that 91 percent, or 286 of 316, were not subject to overfishing.

Enjoy your fish and chips!