New England struggles to save overfished and climate-stressed cod

By Niina Heikkinen | 03/06/2015 08:31 AM EST

Decades of overfishing have depleted cod populations in New England to just a tiny percentage of their former numbers, and recently, already-depleted cod populations have plunged further, threatening fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. As a result, a group of environmental organizations petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week to extend a ban on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine to conserve the fish from a complete collapse.

Decades of overfishing have depleted cod populations in New England to just a tiny percentage of their former numbers.

Compare cod catches of about 70,000 metric tons using just hook-and-line in the 1860s with the 4,000 metric tons caught by fishermen in the 1990s and early 2000s using more efficient mechanized trawlers.

Recently, already-depleted cod populations have plunged further, threatening fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. Since formal cod population monitoring first began in 1982, the numbers of cod have dropped 90 percent, leaving populations at just 3 to 4 percent of sustainable levels.


This week, a group of environmental organizations petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to extend a ban on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine to conserve the fish from a complete collapse.

The dramatic cod declines concern fishery managers and environmentalists alike, but the groups disagree on how to best address the depleted fish stocks.

An assessment report released by NMFS last August prompted the agency to put stricter limits on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine in November, but those regulations expire in May. Both groups have submitted management proposals and are awaiting finalized quotas from NMFS for the next fishing season.

Jennifer Goebel, an NMFS spokeswoman, said in a statement that it had received the petition and was currently reviewing it, but she declined to comment further.

Under the petitioners’ proposal, fishermen would not be allowed to target cod for fishing and could take in 200 metric tons of incidental catches per year. Fishermen would also be limited to 200 pounds of incidental cod catches per fishing trip.

"There is a point of diminishing returns, if the stocks get so low they can’t rebound. We are getting very close to that point," said Catherine Kilduff, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that is petitioning NMFS.

Other petitioners include the Turtle Island Restoration Network, SandyHook SeaLife Foundation and Greenpeace.

"This is a watershed moment for cod fisheries," said Thomas Armbruster, a marine biologist and founder of SandyHook SeaLife Foundation. "If we don’t do something in the next five to 10 years, they will be decimated."

Concerns about warming in the Gulf of Maine

The catch limits outlined in the petition are stricter than those recently proposed by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is responsible for managing the Gulf of Maine cod fisheries.

Under their proposal, fishermen could catch 386 metric tons and would not have a per-trip catch limit. The quota is a sharp decrease from the 2014-15 quota of 830 metric tons.

"Based on the most recent assessment, I don’t think there is much doubt that cod are in bad shape," said Thomas Nies, the council’s executive director.

Cod fishing
Cod fishing: The days of bringing home boatloads may be ending. | Photo by Derek Keats, courtesy of Flickr.

In recent years, the New England Fishery Management Council has proposed significant restrictions on fishing, spurred by a 2011 cod assessment report.

"At the time [in 2008], fishermen were reporting very good catch rates, so everything seemed to line up really well," Nies said. "In 2010, we thought we would rebuild these cod stocks by 2012, we thought we had turned the corner and we’d be a shining example of how to recover a cod stock. Then we got the 2011 assessment."

Since the report’s release four years ago, the council has reduced its fishing quotas by 80 percent. Although the council’s proposed quotas were higher than those suggested in the petition, the numbers are still so low that few fishermen who targeted cod would be making much of a profit, he said.

The ability of the remaining cod to recover is still unclear. Although overfishing is the main driver of cod declines, other environmental factors, including climate change, are complicating predictions of how well the fish will be able to recover, even if fishing is highly restricted.

Rising ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine could drive remaining populations into deeper and cooler waters. While that has meant moving northward toward the Arctic, it appears that cod populations are shifting southward instead for unclear reasons. Because cod serve as a key species within their ecosystem, their declines could permanently alter the ecology of the Gulf of Maine.

For environmental groups, that uncertainty means seeking the lowest possible quotas. They say that fisheries will not be able to stick to a 10-year recovery plan required by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act unless cod are captured even less frequently.

Make-or-break quotas

While a more conservative estimate would have more economic consequences for fishermen, the consequences of a more generous quota could be the complete collapse of Gulf of Maine cod, according to Doug Karpa, a staff attorney at the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

"If we don’t have enough information, that means we need to be more cautious," he said.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist with Greenpeace, agreed, adding that because climate change was making the future ecology of the region more unpredictable, fishery managers need to do more to incorporate that added uncertainty into their projections, which would also mean further limiting catches.

Yet Nies challenged the petitioners’ critique, saying that the council’s quotas were based on the assessment of the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, which found that 386 metric tons would not affect the ability of the fisheries to rebuild over time.

From the perspective of fisheries managers, a difference between several hundred tons of cod may actually be difficult to measure because the quotas would amount to a very small number of total fish, according to Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and former northeast regional administrator at NMFS.

"For me, the difference in management doesn’t mean anything, but to a fisherman on the water, it matters," Rosenberg said. "Various boats are trying to figure out how to piece together business. They are going to fight for that additional amount of quota."

Most cod fishermen in New England are working from small owner-operator boats, not the massive commercial trawlers that environmentalists warn are especially damaging to species recovery and marine habitats. Because they are working as small businesses, the difference between 200 and 386 metric tons could determine whether they can keep working, he said.

"Many people say they can’t survive while stocks rebound, the transition is really hard," Rosenberg said.

At the same time, placing harsh restrictions on small businesses is politically unpopular, and regulating how much small boats catch is also much more difficult than monitoring larger vessels, he said.

Who is counting the cod?

Another challenge of rebuilding cod compared with other species is that the fish tend to have very similar amounts of offspring from year to year. That makes the recovery process slower than that of haddock, which can have boom years with lots of offspring on a more regular basis.

Although Rosenberg did not analyze the current plans specifically, he said that getting catches down to a few hundred metric tons would give cod "a pretty good chance of recovery," although he cautioned that there were no guarantees the fish could rebound.

Others were more ambivalent.

"Will there ever be a cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine again? I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does either," Karpa said.

The same week that the environmental groups submitted their petition for more restrictions on cod fishing, NMFS filed a final notice with the Federal Register that it was offering some exemptions from the temporary 200-pound trip limit. Fishermen would also be able to catch fish in both the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank on the same trip. In exchange, the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, which petitioned the change, said fishermen would reduce their quota by 30 metric tons.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) disagreed with the change.

"It’s sending the wrong message, it’s saying that it’s OK if fishermen catch up their quota in cod," said Peter Shelley, the interim president and senior counsel at CLF Massachusetts.

He suggested that many more cod were being caught than were being reported.

"The problem is if they are allowed to go fishing in both areas in one trip, and there are no observers on board, there is no accounting for where the cod actually came from," Shelley said. "We think it’s a practice that will lead more fish being misdescribed as coming from another place."

On paper, at least, fewer fish would be caught under the revised restrictions. With trip limits, about 20 metric tons of cod would have been preserved.

"We just don’t believe the system is in place to ensure that people will be doing what they say they are doing," he said.

William Whitmore, a policy analyst at NMFS, said the exemptions would prevent as many marketable fish from being discarded overboard and make it easier for fishermen to catch other abundant fish like pollock and haddock.

While he agreed that more monitoring was necessary to fully account for catches, such changes would have to be proposed and implemented over the next few years.

Although environmentalists may not be entirely happy with the level of regulations in the forthcoming rules for next fishing season, "the quota will be much more in line with what they are looking for," Whitmore said.