Bottom Line

The Bottom Line: Changing Course for America’s Oldest Fishery

Fishermen have landed barely a third of their allotted cod quota in 2012.

“The fish just aren’t there.” This simple observation from Cape Cod fisheries manager Tom Dempsey to the Associated Press sums up the challenge of decreasing cod populations.

Recent scientific studies estimate that cod populations are at or near record lows. But this serious problem has not stopped the New England Fishery Management Council from proposing to end protection of their waters off the New England coast, a move that will make it even harder for cod—a fish that helped build the region’s economy—to recover.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of cod to New England. America’s oldest fishing ports grew and thrived because of once-abundant schools of the species. “The sacred cod”—a wooden carving—hangs in the Massachusetts statehouse. And, of course, there is the famous cape named for the fish.

But Cape Cod fishermen have largely given up on their home’s namesake. Cod averaged more than $3 per pound at auction for much of 2012—a very high price. But the catch from nearby Georges Bank has been so paltry that fishermen barely landed one-third of their allotted quota.

Why are cod and many other species of groundfish, or bottom dwellers, struggling to recover? Decades of heavy fishing depleted their numbers and damaged the ocean ecosystem. These fish now face additional challenges from climate change as New England waters hit record high temperatures in 2012.

At the last meeting of the council in late January, grim reality set in among officials. “We’re just headed toward oblivion,” John Bullard, regional fisheries administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in reference to the scarcity of cod. “We have to change course.”

Despite considerable pressure from the seafood industry and its allies in Congress to allow overfishing to continue, the council held firm and approved painful but necessary cuts in the catch limits. These new limits for cod and other important groundfish are supported by the best science, and they follow the proven path for rebuilding fish populations as laid out in the nation’s primary fishery law.

While the catch limits are an important step in the right direction, other proposals approved by the council risk further harm to an already battered ocean ecosystem. For most of the past two decades, New England’s groundfish benefited from a network of areas closed to most bottom trawling and dragging. Created after fish populations crashed in the 1990s, these areas cover more than 8,000 square miles, sheltering spawning and juvenile fish, and allowing seabed habitats to recover from decades of damage. These protections played an important role in the recovery of some species, including scallops. Scallops now make New Bedford, Massachusetts the nation’s richest fishing port.

Yet, in a move advocated by the owners of large vessels in the New England fleet, the council passed a measure that will end protection for more than half these areas. Roughly 5,000 square miles—the size of Connecticut—could be open to bottom trawling.


Author and noted marine biologist Callum Roberts recently wrote that opening the protected zones will be disastrous because a “linchpin of fishery recovery” could be “wiped out in less than a season’s fishing.”

The council’s proposal to open these protected areas to bottom fishing now rests with officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their decision will test their commitment to truly set a new course for one of America’s most storied fish—and one of its most historic fishing grounds.

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.


3 Responses to The Bottom Line: Changing Course for America’s Oldest Fishery

  • Doug Maxfield says:

    Funny, your little graph began at 2010…no mention of the years of sacrifice that had the fleet profitable before catch shares…just the same old bs about overfishing. Remeber, we’ve only done what we’re allowed.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Mr. Maxfield,

      The graph you refer to is not a measurement of profitability over time. It is a comparison of the actual catch compared to the allowable catch. The data show that fishermen are not landing the quota they have, a sure sign of a problem with the resource. NOAA regional administrator (and former New Bedford mayor) John Bullard put it well at the January Council meeting: “We don’t have enough cod, that’s the cause of the pain.”

      You make a good point that fishermen have sacrificed in order to rebuild stocks. Part of that sacrifice involved setting aside the closed areas, a wise investment in protecting habitat and spawning areas. It would be a shame to see that investment squandered with a rash decision to end the closed areas.

  • Doug Maxfield says:

    Let’s compare the landings on GOM cod in 2009, the last year of DAS to the alotted allocation for 2011, the second year of catch shares? Or better yet, let’s put up a graph that shows cod landings from 2005-2009; and then a separate graph showing the landings from 2010-2012. Then we can discuss what has changed as far as management structure; number of boats fishing (fishing, not leasing); and the average size and h.p. of said boats. We’ll leave the make believe 2008 assesment out of the conversation, since those assesment numbers only apply when they support NOAA’s position of the day.
    My point being that catch shares are a proven failure…the 77% cut in codfishing will not stop overfishing, only prolong the inevitable. The sooner we go back to daily limits and rolling closures, the sooner we can get back on the road to recovery. A road we’ve already walked.

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