By Howard James
New England- Fishermen who make their living catching New England’s best known fish – the cod – are in serious trouble again.
The closing of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery, if it is extended for another year or more, could bankrupt some cod fishermen and create serious problems for the small coastal towns where the fishermen live and moor their boats.
The Gulf of Maine stretches from Cape Cod, the eastern tip of Massachusetts to Cape Sable, the southern tip of Nova Scotia, Canada. It includes the entire coastline of Maine and New Hampshire as well as all of Massachusetts north of Cape Cod.
New Englanders have been harvesting cod since the 17th century – some 400 years.
Fishermen once found cod so plentiful some would laugh and suggest they could almost walk across the Atlantic on their backs. Now the federal agency that regulates fishing – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – has shut down cod fishing along the Atlantic Coast from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the Canadian border. So what’s going on?
In the 1980s and early 1990s cod were being caught in large numbers. However, fishermen no longer were landing those 35 to 40 pound fish their grandfathers caught. By the mid-90s NOAA reported a near collapse of commercial cod fishing.
The New England Fishery Management Council, acted swiftly. They blocked the entry of new vessels into the fishery and limited the length of time a fisherman could spend catching cod. That reduced fishing pressure on cod in the Gulf of Maine as well as Georges Bank cod. But that still didn’t solve the problem.
There seems to be no limit to the speculation as to what was happening. Some reasoning seemed more plausible than others.
A few fishermen had argued the rapid growth in the number of protected gray seals was the cause of the cod problem. But the number of gray seals catching cod would have to have been overwhelming.
Some blame the arrival of larger boats as well as new technology, including the GPS, side scan sonar (which provides wide images of the sea floor), and more effective fish finders. With money to be made (some fishermen have said they had pocketed $150,000 in a season) the number of boats had increased sharply over the years.
As the number of fish began to decline, cod tended to gather in what were called “hot spots.” Fishermen would fish a hot spots in what some called “pulse fishing” until they no longer brought up fish, and then the fishermen moved on. What they apparently didn’t realize at the time was those hot spots were cod breeding grounds. Removing all the fish from the hot spots seemed to have a devastating impact on the cod population.
In recent years fishermen no longer were able to catch cod within 20 to 30 miles of shore. The word went out that cod were being seriously overfished. Could Atlantic cod go the way of other extinct species of fish? Or, given enough time, would they make a comeback as apparently has been the case for humpback and finback whales now being spotted in growing numbers off Cap Cod?
There is another significant concern — the warming of water temperatures along the New England coast. NOAA reports that during the first six months of 2012 sea surface temperatures in the Northeast Shelf Large Maine Ecosystem “were the highest ever recorded.”
“Above average temperatures were found in all parts of the ecosystem from the ocean bottom and across the sea surface,” NOAAs Northeast Fisheries and Science Center reported, then added. “Atlantic cod continued to shift northeastward from their historic distribution center.”
Some experts blamed a very hot summer in 2014, with Boston temperatures hitting 100 degrees.Yet Andrew C. Revkin reported in the New York Times “the eastern two-thirds of the contiguous United States was persistently cool in 2014, cooler than the 1951-1980 average in all seasons . . . . Residents of the the eastern two-third of the United States and Canada might be surprised that 2014 was the warmest year (nationally), as they happened to reside in an area with the largest temperature anomaly on the planet, except for a region in Antarctica.”
Is increased water temperature the result of global warming?
I tend to be skeptical. I remember being told by a respected government scientist back in the 1960s that climate cycles are natural and have been going on for eons.
I interviewed that climate scientist in Chicago when the city was being accused of draining the Great Lakes by reversing the flow of the Chicago river. Beaches were being extended out hundreds of feet as the water level dropped. A number of Great Lakes states decided to sue Chicago. But the climate expert said just give nature time. We were just going through a low water cycle. And he was right. In a few years the extended beaches disappeared and water was back up to its expected level.
When I visited Alaska a couple of years ago there was clear evidence glaciers were melting and shrinking. But again I recalled the Chicago experience and wondered if nature would reverse itself there was well.
By Howard James
Next: How Maine fishermen began catching and selling seafood for as much as $2,000 a pound.