New England Fisheries

Globe, Times Miss Boat on Real Issues

A red cod swims through healthy kelp at Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/NEOO

The Northeast’s two leading newspapers both editorialized recently on the fragile status of groundfish populations, especially cod, on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, both the Boston Globe and New York Times missed an opportunity to emphasize conservation measures and explain the great risk for fish and fishermen if we weaken those protections.

The Times focuses on recent counts of cod in the North Sea, where the larger fish—the best spawners—are still scarce. The Times rightly points out the importance of older, larger fish and the implications of depleting the big ones:

“[O]lder cod lay two or three times as many eggs as younger cod. This means that a healthy cod population must include relatively large numbers of older fish…Most of the cod being caught are sexually immature, and the rest are just entering maturity…In other words, we have fished our way down the population until we’ve reached the boundary of reproduction.”

That’s important. But what the Times fails to mention is also important: some of the best management tools we have here in New England to help young fish survive and become large and productive are under attack. The groundfish crisis has pushed some shortsighted ideas into the limelight, including fishing in currently closed areas.  Simply put, little fish need a place to become big fish. We need to protect essential fish habitat from destructive fishing practices if we want groundfish populations to bounce back.

The Globe’s editorial focuses on the recent disaster declaration for the region’s groundfish and is essentially an exercise in spending money that doesn’t yet exist. The editorial implies that the requested $100 million in disaster relief for New England is already a check in the mail, and that the problem ahead is how to divvy up the federal dollars.

Hard-hit fishing communities should spend the money wisely. That means, among other things, helping to establish new marine industries…If Congress goes along, it will be a one-time injection of economic-development funds that fishing communities must not squander.

If Congress goes along” is a mighty big “if.” A clear-eyed view of the emerging budget situation in Washington — with congress considering severe cuts — suggests that the aid request is a long shot at best. The real challenge for fishing communities is finding the will to resist unwise action in response to the crisis.  Pressure is already mounting to weaken scientifically set catch limits and reduce size restrictions on the fish caught. If we reject science and instead recklessly pander to short term political pressure we risk jeopardizing the fragile recovery of our shared resource.

The Globe has recently reported on what might happen if we fail to heed the best science. In March, David Abel relayed a cautionary tale from Canada. There, catch limits determined by politics, not science, pushed cod populations into a collapse that a two-decade fishing moratorium has not yet been able to reverse. Abel interviewed Eric Dunne, who served as regional director of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Dunne had this sobering message for New England:

“In retrospect, and what I would tell those in New England, is that the best approach is to err on keeping the catch down. It’s easy to say and hard to do, but if you push the limit of what’s being advised, you’ll be in trouble.’’

The crisis in groundfish is an opportunity to try new steps. Wise steps would include a fuller consideration of the ecosystem that cod and other groundfish exist within, working with the natural system to support a recovery. Unwise steps could well put us on the path to a commercial extinction of some of our most important species.


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