Cod, Revisited

Atlantic Cod. Photo credit Pat Morris.

We’re always happy to find another reason to link to an old environmental history post on cod, or fish stocks in general. In an op-ed for the New York Times a few days ago, environmental and maritime historian W. Jeffrey Bolster starts to answer the question, “Where have all the cod gone?”

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.

It’s easy to imagine this recent drop in the cod population as a new phenomenon — a result, perhaps, of global warming, or some combination of climate change and overfishing by giant steel ships armed with electronic fish-finders and precise GPS navigation systems. And it’s just as easy to imagine that, after a season or two of belt-tightening, fish populations will rebound — it is, after all, a strategy that state and federal regulators have pursued for decades.

In fact, humans have been affecting the Atlantic’s fish stocks for centuries, beginning with technology so simple that people today would not even consider it “technology.” Forgetting that history, we opt for short-term fixes, which only compound the problem.

The fishery resources of the western Atlantic once seemed virtually limitless, with fish supposedly as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara. And yet the current emergency effort to restore cod populations is simply the latest chapter in a 150-year saga in which fishermen, scientists, industrialists and politicians have consistently confronted emptier nets and fewer fish.

As early as the 1850s, fishermen from Maine and Massachusetts began to pester their governments to do something about declining cod catches. Those men fished with hooks and lines from small wooden sailboats and rowboats. Fearing “the material injury of the codfishing interests of this state” by increased fishing for menhaden, a critical forage fish for cod, fishermen from Gouldsboro, Me., implored the Legislature in 1857 to limit menhaden hauls.

Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War. There have been plenty of warnings along the way. Maine’s fishery commissioner, Edwin W. Gould, spoke out plainly in 1892. “It is the same old story,” he said. “The buffalo is gone; the whale is disappearing; the seal fishery is threatened with destruction.” For Mr. Gould, the path forward was clear: “Fish need protection.”

You can read the rest of the original article from page A21 on the January 2nd, 2015 New York edition of the Times here.

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