Chasing Cod

Photo credit: Erica Fuller

CLF Senior Attorney Erica Fuller recently vacationed to Newfoundland with two goals in mind: (1) disconnect from work and enjoy the great outdoors and (2) kiss a cod. Unfortunately, the second goal would make the first nearly impossible as she learned more and more about the connections between cod’s story in Newfoundland and cod’s story in New England.

I wanted to kiss a cod in Newfoundland (a thing that also involves screech- look it up), but that proved harder than expected. The deserted infrastructure of a once vibrant fishery was shocking. Well-built jetties protected empty fishing piers, old tractor trailers with expensive refrigeration rusted next to collapsing processing plants. Shack after shack along the shoreline – drying racks long since rotted, but the smell of the sea was fresh. Where are the fish and the boats and the people?

I asked a million questions.

First up, a whale watching captain. His response was that tourism and a highly regulated recreational fishery had replaced the commercial fishery. Because capelin (a smelt that is food for certain whales, assorted seabirds, and cod) was plentiful in Witless Bay this year, his company had lots of humpbacks and puffin chicks to show tourists. Other years the purse seiners took most of the capelin and he drove a truck instead. Every so often there would be a small sign of cod recovery – a “pocket of good fishing” he explained.  But someone would inevitably claim it and by the next year it too would be gone.

When I asked our B&B host about the continued lack of cod he said quietly: “when you clear cut a forest you can’t then ask where have all the birds gone?”

But after a 40 year moratorium? Surely there must be hope.

“People had 2 choices” he said. “Where you have 10 animals, you can kill all but 2 and hope the population will recover or you can kill all 10 and blame the government. Both are bad choices and ultimately we killed the Golden Goose.”

While drawing a distinction between the inshore and offshore guys, he claimed “most fishermen aren’t conservationists, they just want to fish. It’s fine if others conserve, that way they can fish it later, but conservation has never been popular.”

He concluded our breakfast conversation with this truth—you cannot go against the people. If elected officials go against the fishery in Newfoundland they’ll be gone—voted out or worse.

My last conversation was with a once successful cod fisherman from Labrador.

In high school, Truman fished with his dad out of a skiff, and the early years were good. Plentiful big fish close to home funded a bigger boat. When cod started to disappear in Red Bay they went offshore. When cod disappeared offshore, he and some of the other young guys went north to places without roads or names and fished. But even in these remote locations, there were nights when big industrial trawlers would follow them and light up the bay they fished in like a small city for several hours.

All these men thought recovery was possible but for fishing out the big old fat fertile female fish (“BOFFFs” are a thing too) and continually dragging the bottom with gear that destroyed the once vast kelp forests.

Back to blame. The inshore guys and a few scientists noticed when cod first started to disappear. The governments answer was a buyout. But now when the offshore fishery also began to collapse, there was no way to shut the fishery down—the government itself held the mortgages on those big offshore boats. Quotas stayed high and fishing continued unabated.

A “crash”? More likely a long, slow predictable derailment.

At home in the Gulf of Maine and out on Georges Bank, we’ve repeated these mistakes despite what we might have learned from our neighbors to the north.  Friends at NOAA and on the Council have been complicit in removing habitat protections and allowing destructive gear in what little refuge remains.

It’s time to make some unpopular decisions so that we can rebuild and restore this iconic New England species. We don’t have 40 years to wait.

Musings from Newfoundland.


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