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Could This Be the End for Gulf of Maine Cod?

Could Cape Cod's namesake and Massachusetts' state symbol be making its exit?
NOAA Photo Library

New England's cod fishermen are struggling with drastically reduced catch allowances. A new report says the fish are disappearing anyway.

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. Last Friday, researchers from the Northeast Fishery Science Center released a preliminary update to the 2011 stock assessment:

“Unfortunately the news is not good. The new analysis 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 way they evolved was to be numerous and when we take them down to very low levels, all bets are off.

The report has sparked controversy, not only because of the result. Fishermen and, increasingly, politicians have been calling for fishery scientists to update the status of fish stocks more frequently than the standard three years, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has typically said there weren’t resources for that. This attempt to provide an interim update has been met with suspicion and criticism for a lack of transparency.

This update will have to be reviewed but, if accepted, it would almost certainly lead to additional cuts in cod catch limits. It’s hard to imagine how much lower they can go. Could this spell the end of Gulf of Maine cod fishery?


In 1992, Canada did close the Atlantic cod fishery on the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland. To this day, it has never really reopened, although some small takes are allowed.

“There are certain symptoms of what happened that are, as far as I understand, are quite similar,” says Dr. George Rose, head of the Fisheries Conservation Group at Memorial University in Newfoundland and previously a government fisheries scientist. He watched Newfoundland’s cod stocks collapse, and continues to study their fate.

Some Canadian fishermen saw record catches just before cod stocks collapsed in the early 1990s.
Some Canadian fishermen saw record catches just before cod stocks collapsed in the early 1990s.

Rose says they also saw “extreme contraction” of the areas in which cod could be found. The cod hyperaggregated, or clumped together, and “made one last stand.” That’s something fishery scientists in New England have also noted, and it helps explain the disconnect between fishermen, who say they can still catch plenty of cod, and scientists, whose broad surveys show a dearth of fish.

“Fishing catch rates depend on aggregation,” explains Rose, “they don’t depend on overall biomass.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how many fish there are in total, as long as there are fish under your boat. In fact, Rose says, Canadian fishermen in the areas where cod were gathering recorded some of their largest catches just before the collapse.

The surprisingly, and somewhat inexplicably, steep decline being seen in New England is also familiar to Rose.

“The decline [in Newfoundland] was so rapid that it really took everybody off-guard,” Rose says, “and even all these years later, we really don’t have a perfect explanation for it.”


Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. It has taken more than two decades, but Canadian fishery scientists, including Rose, have started to see improvement in cod stocks in the past few years.

It’s still too early to expand the fishery, but Rose says it looks like some Canadian cod populations are poised to take off in coming years. He’s spoken out against efforts to place northern Atlantic cod on the Endangered Species List, saying extinction is unlikely. But that doesn’t mean there will be a return to the old normal.

“The way they evolved was to be numerous and when we take them down to very low levels, all bets are off,” says Rose. “They’re going to have to reinvent their whole life history - how they relate to the environment, and how they reproduce, and where they go, and what they eat, all of it.”


That’s particularly true for New England’s cod stocks, who have to contend not only with fishing pressure but also, increasingly, the impacts of climate change. Rising water temperatures have cod on the move – northward and offshore in search of the cold water they need – and threaten to make historic spawning grounds too hot for juvenile cod in coming decades. Scientists at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center have also documented climate-related changes in zooplankton – tiny floating animals that are important food for young cod – that could help explain the slow recovery of New England cod populations, despite reduced fishing.

"If you take away the human [fishing] effects, the effects coming up the food chain, right from the plankton, are incredibly important," says Rose. "That's one of the things we've learned."

Cod populations have bounced back before, but scientists have never seen population levels this low. Only time will tell if the current decline is ‘it.’ Either way, if Newfoundland’s experiences are any indication, New England cod fishermen are likely in for a tough twenty or thirty years. And climate change may ultimately determine whether New England cod stocks ever fully recover.

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