New England Fisheries

Catch Limits Not Enough – Habitat Protection Crucial to Reverse Cod Crisis

An olive cod swims through kelp at Cashes Ledge. Photo credit: Brian Skerry.

The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine, and once again managers have failed to recognize the basic action needed to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, the council also faces the further decline of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

One recent study determined that the cod population on Georges Bank was the lowest ever recorded—roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. (The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine has also collapsed to roughly 3 percent of the healthy target.)

The Council set new catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank stock, but previous decisions by Council to strip protection for important fish habitat on Georges Bank are equally important and must also be addressed.

Scientists have clearly warned that in order for depleted fish populations to recover, they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce. Over the summer, however, Council ignored those scientists and voted to cut the protected areas by 81 percent on Georges Bank.

This is an especially bad move in light of the declining status of cod on Georges Bank and recent science showing the need to address the effects of warming of waters due to climate change.

Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is adding to the problem. Protecting fish habitat can help by making fish populations more resilient to the additional stress of warming water.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on the council’s vote to strip habitat protections. We certainly hope those officials will listen to the scientists and overturn this reckless proposal.


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