Thursday, May 28, 2015


We all know that the cod situation up in the Gulf of Maine has gotten pretty bad.  With the population down to just 3 or 4 percent of target levels, “stock collapse” is a relevant term and it is even possible that a Newfoundland-like moratorium could loom in the future.

Even so, it’s probably hard for folks with no connection to New England to understand just how bad things are, and how far King Cod, which once ruled both the recreational and commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine, has fallen.

To put things in context, in order to keep some sort of business flowing now that the recreational fishery for Gulf of Maine cod has been completely closed, some of the region’s party boats are now targeting at least one fish that is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

No, I’m not kidding.

In an article that appeared in the May 25 edition of the Newburyport (MA) Daily News, Tom Orrell, owner of the Gloucester, Massachusetts based Yankee Fleet of party boats, said

“We can’t fish for cod this season and there’s nothing we can do about that right now.  There’s just been so much negative publicity, but what we’re trying to get across to folks is that there are species we can fish for and that the experience of fishing out on the North Atlantic and the experience of Gloucester and the experience of getting some fish to take home are still there.”
And that’s all true.  But when it comes to those “species we can fish for,” the Daily News reporter goes on to explain that

“In the place of cod, Orrell and other big boat operators are trying to sell their customers on fishing for species such as haddock, pollock and cusk.”
Haddock, I can understand, because that fish has recovered pretty nicely and produced a few big year classes, although I can also understand why a lot of fishermen might not think that bringing home just 3, possibly sub-20-inch haddock isn’t worth the long trip offshore.  And I can understand pollock, too, because the last benchmark assessment said that they’re pretty abundant, even though that optimistic assessment was based on a “cryptic biomass” that might not really exist.

But it is hard to think of targeting cusk, which the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office of Protected Resources has considered a “Species of Concern” for quite some time, and named as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2007.  That’s a long time to linger on the candidate list, but the truth is that there is just so little information out there about cusk that the actual health of the stock is hard to determine.

Thus, they still can be fished, even though what little data is out there makes the situation seem bad.

According to the Office of Protected Resources,

 “A declining population trend has been evident since the late 1960s.  All abundance indices remained at or close to record low levels from 1985 through 2002.  The NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center biomass index for cusk was near zero in 1998 and is the record low.  In the early 1970s, individual fish weight averaged 7 lbs (3 kg) but declined by 50% to 1.5 kg (3 lbs) through the late 1990s.  Landings and survey indices have dropped considerably from 1984 to 2004.  The ratio of landings to biomass estimates has been increasing since 1986, which implies increased exploitation over time.
“The catch per unit effort from 1970-2001, or just over 3 cusk generations, declined by about 90% while population estimates for cusk greater than 20 inches (0.5 m) in the same time frame demonstrated a 96% decline…”
And this is a fish that is being promoted to anglers as a good alternative to cod, proving that the recreational fishing industry up in New England is truly desperate…

The interesting thing is that, despite the precarious state of the population, cusk are not currently managed by NMFS.  There is no real directed fishery for cusk.  Although they are often taken as bycatch in longline fisheries for various groundfish species, and occasionally caught by recreational fishermen  seeking cod and similar species, the New England Fishery Management Council did not choose to include them in the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.  Thus, they have no meaningful protection short of the Endangered Species Act.

So in the absence of cod, New England fishermen are now targeting other species, including some of dubious health, and others that we know aren’t in good shape.  We have to wonder just how long the merry-go-round of fishing on depleted stocks can go on.

Most of the cod are now gone, and flounder stocks are not healthy.  Wolffish and ocean pout may not be retained, and what remains of the recreational fishery now depends on small haddock, pollock of “cryptic” abundance and a few lesser species, including the potentially threatened cusk.  

Yet even when faced with this reality, New England fishermen tend to fight regulation rather than embracing the chance to recover their fisheries offered by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
Such stubbornness can only lead to a steadily worsening situation.

If nothing changes, it is easy to foresee a time when all stocks have fallen too far for fishing to continue, with not even threatened species available to soak up some effort when once-popular stocks have collapsed.

And should that occur, New England fishermen and the industries they support may learn in the hardest way possible how bad desperation can be.

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