Could New England Cod Be History?

Deep cuts to catch quotas could spell the end of dayboat cod fishing in the Northeast.

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

New England’s most beloved and iconic fish is in deep trouble, and the region’s dayboat fishermen are being dragged down with it.

Yesterday, fisheries management officials announced drastic cuts to the region’s cod quotas—a 77 percent cut on cod caught in the Gulf of Maine, and a 61 percent cut for cod taken from Georges Bank—the two distinct fisheries where most New England cod is harvested. Officials say cod populations have become so depleted that extreme reductions are the only way to save and rebuild the once vibrant fishery.

“These cuts are devastating across the board, and the impacts to fishing communities are going to be felt on an historic level,” Brett Tolley, community organizer with Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, tells TakePart.

For 59-year-old Richard Burgess, a Gloucester, Mass.-based gillnet fishermen, the reduction in available catch could mean the end to his current way of life. At one time, Burgess owned four fishing boats. After previous quota cuts, he’s now down to two vessels, both operated by close family members.

“I’ve been a fisherman all my life. I’m going to try and hang on. We have families and kids in college,” he says. “But with a 77 percent reduction, pretty much the entire inshore fleet is doomed.”

John Bullard, Northeast region administrator for NOAA Fisheries tells TakePart that he sympathizes with small-boat fishermen.

“The sad reality is that given the lack of recovery of several key groundfish stocks, many fishermen are going to find it hard to get by next year,” he said.

Just how deep are the cuts? A decade ago, catch limits for the Georges Bank fishery were 12,000 metric tons. The new quotas will reduce that number to 2,002 metric tons. For the Gulf of Maine fishery, ten years ago the numbers were at 8,000 metric tons. Yesterday’s cuts will bring it to 1,550 metric tons. The quota change is expected to take effect in May, and will last at least three years.

“The [cuts are] huge, there’s no other way to describe it,” Tom Nies, a fishery analyst for the New England Fishery Management Council, told The New York Times.

Legal Sea Foods president and CEO Roger Berkowitz—who held a controversial “Blacklisted Seafood Dinner” in 2011 as a way to protest what he considered flawed, outdated scientific findings that “unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish,” including cod—says the restaurant chain has moved away from cod and is serving more haddock and pollack. He also says inaccurate stock assessments could be playing a role here.

“What’s most frustrating right now is that NOAA has refused over the last few years to employ the best available science for fish stock assessments,” he tells TakePart. He’d like to see sonar-based assessments, based on work being done at MIT and Northeastern, but an NOAA official told us that sonar technology is not yet being widely used, and is better for detecting midwater fish like herring than groundfish like cod or haddock.

Just where the once-abundant cod have gone remains somewhat of a mystery. Some point the finger at climate change, saying warming ocean water have pushed the fish out of traditional fishing beds, in search of cooler water. Others point to the adoption of the controversial “catch shares” management system, in which fishermen are given a hard quota and allowed to take as many days at sea needed to reach their limit.

Tolley says the real problem lies with large-scale fishing boats.

“What we hear is a lot of really important inshore areas are being fished by larger-scale offshore boats that are coming closer to the inshore areas and fishing on a scale that the ecosystem can’t handle. Areas that are critical for fish to spawn,” he says. “The smaller scale dayboat fishermen, that have worked for 15 years to rebuild these areas…it’s all been wiped out in just a couple of years.”

Fisheries expert Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, says he’s concerned that once the region loses its commercial fishing infrastructure, it will be impossible to recover.

“If we don’t have fishermen on those grounds, oil and gas development will be around the corner. I’d rather have fishermen out there than others poking around for fossil fuels and minerals,” he tells us.

For now, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program will keep its current ratings on Atlantic cod, which range from best choice to avoid, depending on the method of harvest.

“This species would have been due for an update without this latest news, and in fact, looking at our latest status report, elements of this fishery are already in draft form, others are due to be started this month,” says spokesperson Alison Barratt.

Whether or not the reduction in cod catch will be enough to revive the fishery remains to be seen. For Burgess, any eventual recovery may come too late.

“They’re basically shutting us off. The fishery service and NOAA have never given anything back to us. When they take something away, they never return it. What will be left is a handful of big boats,” he says. “They’d rather see 10-15 large vessels and eliminate 600 small, family-owned vessels. It all boils down to Obama’s ocean policy.”

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