New England Fisheries

Northern Cod Rebound: A promising story for our most depleted stocks

Photo credit: Dieter Craasmann.

Many know the adage: “There were once so many cod in New England that you could walk across their backs.” But New England is not the only region where this saying applies. Our neighbors to the north, along the rocky shores of Newfoundland, also found great success in the sea, hauling large catches of what’s referred to as northern cod.

Also similar to New England, Newfoundland has understood the struggles and sacrifices required to keep fish populations healthy. A Boston Globe article recently highlighted Newfoundland’s cod collapse and its journey to recovery, offering hope to our own local fishing industry.

Newfoundland’s cod fishery peaked in the late 1960s, but completely plummeted over the next thirty years, forcing the Canadian government to impose a moratorium in 1992, despite the devastating loss of 40,000 jobs.

Patience Pays Off

But fast forward twenty years, and Newfoundland’s cod population is now on its way to recovery. As reported by the Boston Globe, a 2016 report showed that the adult population doubled in the last three years and the spawning stock is expected to double again over the next three years. Catch limits have only slightly increased, but there is hope that the government will increase the quota soon and future generations will once again profit from a plentiful population.

The last twenty years in New England, however, have not been as fortunate. The most recent stock assessments show Gulf of Maine cod populations at just 4 percent of its target biomass, and Georges Bank cod is even worse. Fishery managers reacted to these historic lows by reducing catch limits to become basically only a bycatch fishery. However, after only one year of strict limits, NOAA somehow approved a 30 percent increase in the limit for Gulf of Maine cod for the most recent fishing year.

The Boston Globe article says, “Newfoundland’s experience provides lessons” for New England cod fishermen and fishery managers. If we are to learn anything from Newfoundland, it’s that catch limits should not be increased after just one year. Even though the Gulf of Maine catch limit still remains quite low, an increase was a step in the wrong direction.

The Boston Globe story is right: there is hope. But in order to make that hope a reality, strict management measures cannot be loosened. Management must account for the present and future impacts of climate change, and opt for a precautionary approach. There will be no quick fix to New England’s cod problem – we are in it for the long haul.


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