New England Fisheries

Former New England Council Chair Calls for More Protection for Cod

Cashes Ledge Cod. Photo Credit: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey

When fishing columnist Rip Cunningham read the latest assessment of the rapidly deteriorating condition of New England’s cod stocks, he wrote, “Can you spell ‘real disaster’?”

The updated numbers from the regional fisheries science center estimate the Gulf of Maine’s cod at just 3 to 4 percent of a sustainable population, with spawning stock biomass at an all-time low.

Cunningham, who served nine years as chair and vice chair on the New England Fishery Management Council, was taken aback.

“A few years back there were predictions that the Gulf of Maine cod stock would end up just like the Canadian Maritimes inshore cod stocks, virtually gone,” he wrote in a recent column. “They stopped all commercial harvest 25 or more years ago and the stocks have yet to rebound. I never believed that would happen here. How wrong can I be?”

Even before this latest assessment, Cunningham had already been ringing the alarm bells about proposals before the New England Council to dramatically reduce habitat protection for cod and other bottom dwelling species , or groundfish.  Now he is calling for even more action to protect the places where cod find shelter and food, grow, and reproduce.

“If there is any, and I mean any, hope left, avoiding extinction will require drastic measures,” Cunningham wrote. “Instead of opening up closed areas, in my opinion there should be a consideration of closing more and when I say closing, I mean to ALL gear capable of catching groundfish. Yes, that includes so-called mid-water trawl gear.”

The groundfish closed areas put in place after cod stocks plummeted in the 1990s are really only “closed” in name—as Cunningham indicates, many types of fishing gear are allowed to operate there. Recent evidence indicates that these other gear types are taking a toll on some groundfish species.

Cunningham also knows that the scientific assessment will encounter resistance from many in the fishing industry, including some who hold seats on the fishery management council.

“There are some who will doubt the science, which most understand to not be perfect. It is all that we have and while not perfect, it has shown this downward trend for a while,” Cunningham wrote. “This stock assessment report basically indicates that we have lost the iconic cod from the waters that were once the prolific envy of the world. We are way too close to zero, so there can be no more mistakes.”

New England Council, NOAA Fisheries, are you listening?


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