New England Fisheries

Sorry, No Local Cod Today, Tomorrow, or Anytime Soon

Atlantic cod stocks have failed to recover after decades of Council management (Photo Credit: Hans-Petter Fjeld)

Last Friday, NOAA scientists informed the New England Fishery Management Council that the most recent assessment of Gulf of Maine cod indicated that the cod were, well, collapsed would be putting it mildly. They estimated the numbers of breeding cod to be only at 3-4% of the target levels. That’s likely well less than 2% of the cod population that once dominated New England’s coastal waters.

But this foreboding news regarding the region’s most iconic fish species is hardly surprising. The New England Council and NOAA Fisheries set the 2012 cod catch levels at the highest levels they could get away with, even vigorously defending those high levels in court. Despite explicit warnings from the scientists that the 2011 cod estimates might well be too optimistic, the New England Council assigned no greater scientific risks to the cod management actions than they would have to a healthy stock, authorizing a quota that they knew had no better than a 50 percent chance of being correct.

While they showed a modicum of “caution” by setting constant catch levels for the next three fishing years (starting in 2013) rather than assuming any rebuilding, they were starting with a catch level that was too high to begin with. For that matter, any directed commercial or recreational catch of Gulf of Maine cod would have been too much— warnings they ignored. They seem to have now lost their gamble with this fishery.

Lest cod’s current dire circumstances are underappreciated, University of New Hampshire marine historians estimate that in 1861 hook-and-line fishermen landed 9,755 tons of Gulf of Maine cod between Penobscot Bay and Grand Manan Island and within 20 miles of the shore. That same year, New England commercial fishermen landed something on the order of 69,000-86,640 tons of Gulf of Maine cod.

In 2013, even with some of the most sophisticated electronic fish finding equipment and high-powered boats that could move onto the remaining cod wherever they showed up, New England commercial fisherman only landed 795 tons of Gulf of Maine cod, 1.2% of those 1861 landings.

But haven’t climate changes in the ocean screwed up cod’s future in New England anyway? Some would argue that this is cod’s endgame anyway so, what does it matter?

The two most important management actions the New England Council and NOAA could take to minimize the negative impacts of climate change on cod and other important species are to ensure that fish populations are at healthy levels as quickly as possible and to protect and enhance the essential habitats in the ocean where these animals live. Those actions would provide a safety net for cod and other fish, buffering them against the stresses of climate changes.

Neither management response seems likely. The council’s dismal record in New England rebuilding Gulf of Maine cod speaks for itself. These fish have been officially and continuously overfished since the 1980s; more than 30 years and counting. No one is holding their breath that the New England Council will do any better for the few remaining spawning cod in the future.

And there is even less reason to think that the New England Council will take meaningful action protecting essential cod habitats. In fact, their apparent goal in the essential fish habitat management plan currently under development is to open up as many of the areas currently closed to fishing for groundfish as they can, including areas that are known to be important to cod.

Critics say that this is what happens when you have a federal fishery management system that puts active fishermen who will economically benefit from their decisions—at least in the short run—on the fishery management councils; they will almost always vote their pocketbooks. Probably many of us would. Some councils have belied that notion, however, with fishermen acting to rebuild and manage their fish well.

But the New England Council voting majorities have always seemed particularly fraught with short-sighted and self-interested decision making. For example, other regional fishery councils have approached the protection of essential fish habitat in a precautionary manner, allowing for a “buffer” against the scientific uncertainty surrounding the long-term chronic impacts from fishing gears on ocean spaces. In New England, most of the council members don’t even seem to have the word “precaution” in their vocabulary.

So the fate of Gulf of Maine cod and the protection of meaningful areas of our oceans from fishing gear damage will once again rest on NOAA, who gets the final say in these matters and is supposed to represent and protect all the public interests in healthy oceans. They certainly understand the importance of both rebuilding cod populations quickly and of protecting essential marine fish habitats for achieving long term ocean health and for mitigating climate change impacts.

But will they act on that knowledge? Or will all the codfish in New England’s seafood stores continue to come from away, from the North Atlantic countries that have been willing to tackle the tough decisions head-on?


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