Is History Repeating Itself in the Gulf of Maine?

Aug 18, 2014

Bad news about New England’s cod fishery is nothing new, but it’s taken on a new urgency in the past few years.

In 2012, fishery managers slashed the amount of Gulf of Maine cod fishermen were allowed to catch by almost eighty percent. The decision was based on a comprehensive assessment of the health of the cod population that concluded the iconic fish wasn’t recovering from decades of fishing as quickly as hoped.

Those reductions cut deep into the wallets of cod fishermen and fishing communities around New England. The federal government declared a fishery disaster and, earlier this year, issued $32.8 million in disaster relief funds to assist affected fishermen.

Unfortunately, it appears that none of this has helped the cod. A new report from scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center “presents a grim picture for the potential recovery of this iconic fish stock. The results indicate virtually every indicator of stock condition declined or worsened in 2013.”

The number of reproductively active cod have hit an all-time low at a mere 3 to 4 percent of what’s needed for a strong, sustainable fishery. That’s down steeply from an estimated 13-18 percent just a couple of years ago.

The report is preliminary and slated for peer review. If accepted, additional fishing restrictions seem inevitable. It’s even possible that the Gulf of Maine cod fishery could be closed.

This wouldn’t be the first time an Atlantic cod fishery has collapsed. In 1992, Canada closed its fabled cod fisheries off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. And they remain largely closed to this day. Canadian fishery biologist Dr. George Rose says what’s going on in the Gulf of Maine - the steep, unexplained decline; the clumping of fish in one or two key spots - is eerily familiar.

But the history of cod fishing – and overfishing – in the Atlantic stretches back much further than the 1980s or 90s. In fact, Jeffrey Bolster, professor of history at University of New Hampshire and author of  The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, argues that depleted stocks are what led European cod fishermen to our shores in the first place – some four hundred years ago.

Today's cod fishermen don't have the luxury of simply moving on to richer fishing grounds farther afield. Instead, if a fishery closes, they have to find something else to do. Some Canadian cod fishermen turned to catching the lucrative shellfish that boomed in the absence of cod. Others turned to entirely different pursuits, including - in one case - fossil hunting.

What might Gulf of Maine cod fishermen turn to if their fishery were to close? And what would be lost if the Gulf of Maine cod fishery closed? Jobs, obviously. A local food source for some. But would we lose something deeper – part of our shared heritage and identity – if the fish for whom Cape Cod is named, the fish who’s likeness hangs in the Massachusetts State House, if cod were no longer being fished in New England waters?