New England Fisheries

“Known is a drop. Unknown is an ocean.”

In New England, Atlantic cod has been overfished and subject to overfishing for decades. Image via NOAA.

That still-true ancient line, penned by Tamil poet Avvaiyar some two thousand years ago, reminds us all that while it is worth paying attention to what we see, it is often critical not to be seduced by our convictions about what it means. And so it is that recent reports from the Portland waterfront of bountiful cod can neither be ignored nor fully credited.

They are what they are: observations. While a lot of cod have apparently been landed in Portland compared with recent years—and when was the last time anyone heard good news from the Portland Fish Exchange?–and while everyone hopes for good news about cod and a future for cod fishermen in New England, a couple of hundred thousand pounds of landed cod hardly leads to the conclusion that the recent scientific stock assessment update is wrong in indicating that Gulf of Maine cod populations are in extremis.

This situation brings to mind the experience several years ago when fishermen from Gloucester were reporting that they had never seen so many inshore cod while the scientists concluded that cod prospects were terrible and getting worse. As it turned out then, they both were right in their own ways. An unusual and concentrated burst of the sand lance populations off Cape Ann had attracted cod from far and wide, but those high catch rates were not representative in any sense of a recovery of cod in the region.

That was the year when almost 50 percent of all the landed Gulf of Maine cod were caught within just a 100-square-mile hot spot off Gloucester. The abundance of cod that Gloucester fishermen were seeing did not reflect the larger condition of the stock. Even then, old timers at the St. Pete’s Club in downtown Gloucester were no doubt snorting that these “young guys” had never seen the abundance of cod that Gloucester boats once fished in earlier times.

Is the science about Gulf of Maine cod wrong? Probably, if one is talking about any kind of precision. Population models are now being asked to look into biological territory that the people who build these models have never seen before. But based on the best scientific judgment, there have never been as few cod in the Gulf of Maine as today. Never. The uncertainties introduced by that fact alone dwarf the conventional uncertainties inherent in population modeling and suggest that prospects are worse than already imagined.

And, as Regional Director John Bullard has aptly reminded us all, greenhouse gas emissions are driving regional ocean temperature increases, acidification of the oceans, and shifts in plankton formation and abundance into ecological territory that the Gulf of Maine has likely never seen, at least in human experience. The Gulf of Maine may be experiencing some of the most severe, early consequences of climate change in all the world’s oceans. No one knows how those forces, coupled with decades of chronic overfishing, loss of large female spawners, and historically low population numbers have affected the ability of cod to get by, let alone recover in New England.

Daniel J. Boorstin drew a conclusion in The Discoverers that is worth repeating in this context: “The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.”

This is not the time when anyone should make statements about the presence or absence of cod based on the misguided notion that anything in their experience gives them an advantage looking into this ecological crystal ball. When black sea bass start showing up in numbers in New Hampshire lobster pots as they have been, all bets are off.

Such a time of historic ecological change is a time to be watchful, not a time when fishery managers should be throwing caution to the wind and opening closed areas to otter trawls and other bottom gear just to get at the few fish remaining, essentially eliminating those areas as both refuges and as biological reference points so that any changes cannot be identified.

This is a time when our collective wisdom and intuition needs to be gathered and brought to bear on meeting the challenge facing all the stakeholders in a healthy Gulf of Maine of how we get through this situation in the best possible condition for the future. We need to be pooling our perspectives, fueling ourselves for a sustained joint effort. A little more humility and a little less dogmatism in the face of these challenges would seem to be in order. Perhaps a little more we-ness and a little less me-ness might be in order as well.


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