New England Fisheries

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Cod

Nearly three months into the fishing year, the amount of cod reported as caught is as low as 13% of the ACL. Photo credit: Brian Skerry/New England Ocean Odyssey.

In “Silver Blaze,” the famous short story about an apparent murder and a stolen prize race horse, Sherlock Holmes cracked the case by pointing to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Challenged by the investigating detective who said that the watchdog had “done nothing in the night-time,” Holmes replied: “That was the curious incident.” Holmes deduced that the dog did not bark because the intruder was well known to the dog.

Sometimes it is what is missing that is the most curious and troubling.

For the 2015 fishing year that started May 1, the annual commercial catch limit for Atlantic cod dropped 75% from 830mt to just 207mt, a limit so low that it essentially created a bycatch fishery. The quota cut was in response to the most recent stock assessment that indicated plummeting cod populations, but at the same time, a number of recreational fishermen, charter operators, and even Gloucester reporters have been claiming that Gulf of Maine cod are everywhere this spring.

Regardless of the reliability of these reports or what they might mean for the status of the whole stock, the claims that fishermen can’t get away from legal-sized cod wherever they turn creates at least the appearance of abundance of Gulf of Maine cod.  In addition, fishermen should have easier access to these abundant fish in the current fishing year since regional managers opened additional closed areas around Cape Ann in May and June where cod seem to linger after spawning.

Under these circumstances, one would expect to see high catch and discard numbers reported for Gulf of Maine cod in May and June, i.e. lots of these apparently abundant post-spawning cod being caught either to be landed or pitched overboard. What’s curious about this case is that we aren’t.

For the first two months of the year not only were the reported commercial cod bycatch numbers low–at 7% which is still just slightly above the normal range–but the overall amount of cod reported as caught (landed plus discards) seems low at only 13% of the greatly reduced annual catch limit.

So, if we are to believe the claims, why didn’t the obvious happen? Why didn’t the reported catch reflect the reported increase in cod abundance and the newly opened areas? Unlike Holmes in “Silver Blaze,” there aren’t additional cues with which the solution to the mystery can be inferred, at least based on information available to the general public. But several explanations suggest themselves, any one or all of which could explain the reported low landings and discard numbers.

  1. It may be that the groundfish fishery in the Gulf of Maine stock area is now so collapsed that the number of Gulf of Maine trips was way down in May and June. Or perhaps the fleet has either remained tied to the docks or has shifted to fishing outside the Gulf of Maine cod stock area to save up their Gulf of Maine cod quota for later in the fishing year when the low 200mt ton limit starts throttling back groundfishing, and lease prices for Gulf of Maine cod skyrocket. Reported landings seem to be slow for many of the Gulf of Maine stocks, even decidedly abundant stocks, potentially supporting this possibility.
  2. It may be that Gulf of Maine fishermen have developed new fishing methods that are allowing them to avoid cod as bycatch in ways that they have not been able to successfully do in the past, although there are no reports of such gear breakthroughs.
  3. It is certainly also possible that, despite the anecdotal information, the low numbers for cod catch reflect a Gulf of Maine cod population that is in even worse condition than anyone imagined and cod are not being caught simply because there are no cod left outside the closed areas.
  4. Finally, a fair number of fishermen tell us that there are few rational reasons under the present circumstances for a fisherman to accurately report the number of cod he or she is actually catching. Under this hypothesis, massive numbers of cod are simply being pitched overboard on un-observed trips, dead or dying and never accounted for as having been caught.

The public will probably never know which possibility to weight the strongest. What is certain is that without observers—and the New England Council wants to get rid of the already limited and inadequate observer requirements this fall if U.S. taxpayers don’t pick up the tab—the unaccounted-for fishing mortality will never be known accurately. And assessment scientists will continue to just be guessing how many cod are being killed by fishing, further weakening the predictive capability of their modeling. Without observers, we may never know why the watchdog isn’t barking.


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