New England Fisheries

Tragedy of the New England Fishing Commons

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.

Many are familiar with Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (if you’re not, I recommend giving it a quick read). Basically, the theory is that an individual will attempt to maximize his or her own personal take of open access resources without considering the big picture impact of such. The theory is termed a “tragedy” because individuals following their own rational best interests will inherently over-consume in a limited world, ultimately resulting in overall resource depletion.   The example Hardin uses to explain this theory is herdsmen continuously growing their herds. They desire the positive economic benefit of a more cattle even though this will lead to overgrazing, an environmental loss for the whole community and eventually the individuals themselves.

Fisheries—especially New England fisheries—are another common example used to illustrate the tragedy of the commons, and a recent New York Times Op-ed titled “Where Have All the Cod Gone?” emphasizes just this. W. Jeffrey Bolster’s article states that even though the recent drastically low cod stock numbers may be partially a consequence of climate change and overfishing, depleted fish stocks are in no way a new phenomenon. Fishermen have been pushing the limit on fisheries for 150 years, and the recent cod stock collapse is just one more “tragedy.”

Worse still, decision-makers have been aware of the problem from the beginning, but technological advances, economic profit, short-sighted actions intended to please multiple stakeholders, and the overall “unwillingness to steer a precautionary course in the face of environmental uncertainty” have allowed overfishing to persist. Recent cod harvests have been several times the amount recommended by scientists even with a collapse underway.

One quote from the article sums it up perfectly: “Our system of exploiting nature’s resources, with its checks and balances, its desire for prosperity and security, its willingness to honor a multiplicity of voices, and its changing sense of ‘normal’ is insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depends.”

Bolster agrees that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent interim Gulf of Maine cod measures were an important step in addressing this problem, but if history tells us anything, more action is necessary. Habitat protection is one of the best ways to help fish stocks recover. Fish, cod in particular, need habitat where they can feed, spawn, and grow without the pressures of fishing. In the long-term, fish as well as humans will benefit from habitat protection, but without such we will certainly continue to witness the further decline of New England fish stocks even with good catch limits. Habitat protection is also “one of the most effective, and doable, ways to increase resilience to climate change,” according to a comprehensive 2012 NOAA report.

There is still time to help protect vital ocean habitat in New England. The Omnibus Habitat Amendment comment period ends tomorrow, January 8th at 5pm. This amendment proposed by the New England Fisheries Management Council threatens to open currently closed areas in the Gulf of Maine, thereby decreasing the portion of essential protected habitat, such as Cashes Ledge. If you haven’t already, you can sign onto a letter asking NOAA and the Council to implement stronger protections, and make progress towards a healthier New England ocean.


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