Bottom Line

Overfishing 101: A big fish story we should take seriously

Lee Crockett leads the Pew Environment Group’s efforts in Washington, D.C. to establish policies to end overfishing and promote sustainable fisheries management. This post, previously published on the National Geographic blog, is the eighth in a series, “Overfishing 101.” Read the previous post here.

Almost everyone has a friend or a relative who loves to tell the tale of the “big one” that got away. And more often than not, that fish grows larger and larger with every telling of the story. I have to admit, as an avid angler, I may have been tempted to do this a time or two. But not all fish stories are tall tales.

The accounts that older fishermen relate can be filled with valuable information for today’s anglers, scientists and managers. Indeed, these so-called “old salts” have decades of experience on the water and vivid memories of the way things used to be, and how different they are today. They are witnesses to a time when people fished without the help of GPS or fish finders, and when species that are now rare were teeming in our coastal waters.

Recently, nature writer and reporter John Nielsen visited several of these old salts, who made their living fishing for cod in the waters off New England. They told him stories of the heyday of cod, when docks were “madhouses” and fishermen formed the “million-pounds-a-month club.”

They also recalled the crash of the fishery in the early 1990s, when larger and more powerful fleets pushed cod populations to collapse. They share in the optimism of younger fishermen today, who are heartened by glimpses of a recovery, but remind us that though some populations of cod appear to be on the rise, they remain a shadow of their former selves.

The estimated population size of Georges Bank cod is drastically below both the healthy population level and the overfished level. (Credit: Pew Environment Group)

Protecting cod’s breeding grounds, adhering to science-based catch limits, experimenting with selective fishing gear technologies and finding innovative ways for fishermen to increase the value of their catch through direct marketing are just a few ways we can act today to help restore this once abundant resource.

As it’s often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, the Pew Environment Group recently put together an interactive timeline about the history of Atlantic cod and a short video featuring the wisdom of these old timers—including historian and former cod fisherman from Stonington, Maine Ted Ames (winner of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship), as well as Mike Anderson and Fred Bennett, both retired fishermen from Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Additional resources are also available on our website pewenvironment.org/cod.


Lee Crockett (The Pew Charitable Trusts) Lee Crockett leads The Pew Charitable Trusts efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote sustainable fisheries management throughout the United States.

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