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Current Cod Crisis 500 Years in the Making

Overfishing - of cod, and many other species - began well before modern technology.
Peabody Essex Museum

As long as there have been fishermen, there has been overfishing. Breaking that cycle is the central challenge facing fishermen, fishery scientists and regulators, and anyone who likes to eat fish or have fishermen as neighbors.

In his latest book, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, Professor Jeffrey Bolster chronicles more than a millenium of overfishing. Depletion of river fish in Europe, he argues, is what led to the rise of ocean fishing around 1000A.D. Five hundred years later, European coastal waters had become so depleted that fishermen once again moved on to more fruitful waters. By 1600, tens of thousands of Europeans could be found fishing the waters of the northwest Atlantic - the now storied fishing grounds that stretch from Cape Cod to the Scotian Shelf.

When the 2013 fishing season opens in a week and a half, Gulf of Maine cod fishermen will be facing a nearly 80% cut in their catch allowances. That’s what fishery scientists say is necessary to halt overfishing and allow fragile cod stocks to rebound.


Bolster cautions we shouldn't expect a quick recovery. After all, the current crisis has been five hundred years in the making. But, once an avid fisherman himself, Bolster says he remains optimistic. We have come to the realization that the sea is not immortal, and that is first step toward taking action to better protect it.

Over the next few months, WCAI will be taking an in-depth look at New England's fisheries - past, present, and most importantly, future. While we investigate the challenges facing the industry, we'll be looking for the people, partnerships, and technologies that hold the promise of a sustainable way forward for both fish and fishermen. Along the way, we'll also be looking for your help. Whether you're a fisherman, a scientist, or someone who likes to eat fish, tell us: who or what gives you hope for the future of New England's fisheries?

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