Cod, the Fading Icon

The sad saga of cod decline on the east coast of North America continues. Fisheries scientists now say that their surveys and models indicate that the remaining population of cod in the Gulf of Maine has reached a dangerously low level and that continued harvesting will push the stock to collapse.

The stock of cod in the Gulf of Maine has always been accessible to small boats fishing from shore communities. That could soon be over. (

Though they didn’t recommend complete closure of the fishery, along the lines of the Canadian relatively permanent moratorium on cod fishing, they did recommend such a deep cut that fishermen said cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine would no longer be worth the effort. In frustrated response, the fishermen say their own catches indicate there are still plenty of cod in the Gulf of Maine to sustain a decent harvest.

Fishing boat carrying cod into Gloucester, Mass (

Both of course cannot be right. The conflict is a familiar one, played out in practically every fishery that has ever been regulated by non-fishermen. The fishermen base their conclusions on the ease with which they find and capture the fish, and they distrust the scientists’ models. The fisheries scientists don’t reject what the fishermen report, but base their own conclusions on a wider set of data, and of course
they believe in their models.

So are there enough cod to sustain some sort of fishery, or aren’t there? The reality is that we don’t know for sure, either way. Such uncertainty is what all fisheries scientists – and all ecologists – live with, a defining feature of their science. But such uncertainty drives everyone else nuts – fishermen and politicians especially.

Cod landings in the gulf of Maine over the past century: now seriously low (

Decisions still get made, and over the past decades, they have usually favored the fishermen – until things get truly drastic, and a moratorium on fishing a particular species is forced on everyone. In the case of Gulf of Maine cod, the fishermen have won once again…maybe.

The regional New England Management Council requested that NOAA approve a one-year emergency extension of the existing quota, instead of the devastating 82% cut previously announced. Under great pressure to agree, NOAA has agreed to a one-year extension, with just a 22% cut in quota.

So what happens a year from now? Will the cod population magically recover this season, and allow for continued fishing? It won’t. Instead, it will probably be worse off, closer to collapse, and facing an even longer recovery period. A full moratorium then becomes ever more likely.

A full size cod - memory or dream, but no longer reality (

It is odd that that the cod fishing will continue this season, despite the advice of the fisheries scientists. The NOAA is committed to protecting all of its fisheries, with the intent of supporting sustainable fishing in all of them. Applying the Precautionary Approach, it has made a lot of headway, despite the resistance of fishermen and politicians.

Why not this time? Perhaps this an election-year decision, driven by powerful Congressmen and disdain for the NOAA.. It certainly isn’t simply empathy for the fishermen.

The outcome, though, is that a once-great cod population dwindles ever closer to oblivion.

A sad icon, indeed. Perhaps next year we will be wiser.

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