Baked Cod: The Path Forward in an Era of Climate Change

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of MaineIn recent weeks, we learned more sobering news for New England’s cod population. A paper published in Science detailed how rapidly increasing ocean temperatures are reducing cod’s productivity and impacting – negatively – the long-term rebuilding potential of New England’s iconic groundfish. The paper confirmed both the theoretical predictions associated with climate change and the recent scientific federal, state, and Canadian trawl surveys that reported a record-low number of cod caught in recent months.

To be clear, the Science authors do not conclude that ocean temperature changes associated with climate change have caused the collapse of cod. We have management-approved overfishing of cod to thank for that.

What rising ocean temperatures do seem to be doing, according to the Science paper, is dramatically changing the productivity of the remaining cod stocks. This makes it more difficult for cod to recover from overfishing today than at any other time in history, and perhaps reduces the ultimate recovery potential even if all fishing were halted. Stock assessments conducted without taking these productivity reductions into full account will dramatically overestimate cod populations and, in turn, fishing quotas.

The Science paper is potentially very important, with major implications for fishing limits on cod for decades to come, But stock assessment scientists have warned for years that their recent models were likely overestimating the amount of cod actually in the water – and the corresponding fishing pressure the stock could withstand. Unfortunately, those warnings have fallen on deaf ears at the New England Fishery Management Council.

In fact, the managers at the Council, dominated by fishermen and state fisheries directors with short-term economic agendas, could hardly have done more than they already have to jeopardize Atlantic cod’s future—climate change or not.

Overfishing, a Weakened Gene Pool, and the Loss of Productive Female Fish

As a result of chronic overfishing, New England’s cod population is likely facing what geneticists call a “population bottleneck,” meaning that the diversity of the remaining cod gene pool is now so greatly reduced that the fish that are left are less resilient to environmental stresses like increasing sea temperatures.

Overfishing has also caused the collapse of the age structure of the cod populations by removing almost all of the larger, more reproductive females (also known as the Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Females, or BOFFFS). Scientists have previously warned that losing these old spawners is a problem for cod productivity, but this new research suggests that the potential damage from their elimination may be significantly greater than imagined as a result of poor, climate change–related ecological conditions.

The Science paper hypothesizes that an underlying factor in the productivity decline of cod this past decade was the correlation between extremely warm spikes in ocean temperatures and the drop in zooplankton species that are critical to the survival of larval cod. With fewer zooplankton, fewer cod larvae make it to their first birthday.

The impacts of this zooplankton decline on cod productivity, however, could be exacerbated by the loss of the BOFFFs. Here’s why:

Cod start to spawn at three to four years old, but young females produce significantly fewer and weaker eggs and cod larvae than their older counterparts. Those elder female fish, on the other hand, produce larger, more viable eggs – sometimes exponentially more healthy eggs – over longer periods of time. If the older female cod population had still been plentiful, they might have produced larvae more capable of surviving variations in zooplankton abundance.

Perhaps the continued presence of larger, older, spawning females to the south of New England (where there is no commercial cod fishery) is one of the reasons that the cod fishery in the nearby warm waters off New Jersey is healthier now than it has been in recent history.

The Cod Aren’t Completely Cooked Yet: Four Potential Solutions

Cod have been in trouble since the 1990s, and now climate change is magnifying these troubles. This new reality, however, is not cause for us to throw in the towel. There are actions that our fishery managers can take now that will make a difference.

First, large cod habitat areas have to be closed to fishingpermanently. This is the only way to protect the large females and increase their number. Designating cod refuges such as the Cashes Ledge Closed Area as a marine national monument will remove the temptation for fishery councils – always under pressure to provide access to fish – to reopen them in the future.

Such monuments would also sustain a critical marine laboratory where more of these complex interactions between cod and our changing ocean environment can be studied and understood.

Second, managers need to gain a better understanding of the cod populations south of Cape Cod. While it is well and good to land “monster” female cod on recreational boat trips, those fish may be the key to re-populating Georges Bank. Caution, rather than a free-for-all, is the best course of action until the patterns of movement of those cod populations, as related to ocean temperature increases, are better understood.

Third, as observed in the Science paper, stock assessment models as well as guidance from the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee must start incorporating more ecosystem variables and reflecting a more appropriate level of scientific precaution in the face of the reality of climate change shifts. Enough talk about scientific uncertainty and ecosystem-based fisheries management; action is needed, and science should have the lead in guiding that action.

Finally, the importance of funding data collection and fishery science is evident from this important Science paper, which was supported by private, philanthropic dollars. NOAA should be undertaking this sort of work – but it is not in a position to even provide adequate and timely stock assessments, because limited funding forces the agency to use the existing outdated models.

NOAA’s funding limitations are constraining both collection of the essential field data needed to understand our changing world as well as the analysis of that data into meaningful and appropriate management advice. If Congress can find $33 million to give fishermen for the most recent “groundfish disaster,” it ought to be able to find money to prevent such avoidable disasters in the future.

Ultimately, the Science paper shines some much needed light on our climate change–related fishery issues in New England, but we can’t let it overshadow decades of mismanagement or justify a fatalistic attitude toward cod rebuilding. Steps can and must be taken, and fishery managers are still on the hook for the success or failure of our current and future cod stocks.

Zooplankton: A tiny creature with a big role in the cod crisis

One of the North Atlantic’s smallest ocean critters is making big waves in New England.

Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA
Centropages. Photo courtesy NOAA

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the collapse of our iconic Atlantic cod fishery due to extreme overfishing. Now, a new study is showing a potentially disastrous link between the effects of climate change and the ailing species’ chance of recovery.

Warming waters are bound to be bad news for a cold water fish, but the problem goes much deeper than that, affecting the entire life cycle of the species. Some of this is due to tiny, microscopic creatures called zooplankton. So what are these little guys, and why are they so important?

Zooplankton is a categorization of a type of ocean organism that includes various species, including Pseudocalanus spp, and Centropages typicus. These two species happen to be the major food source of larval cod in the Gulf of Maine.

Zooplankton, which are usually smaller than 1/10 of an inch, play a major role in the Atlantic’s food web. When there are lots of them, things are pretty good. Young fish prey on them and grow to be healthy, adult fish.

But when there aren’t enough plankton to go around, species like Atlantic cod can suffer. When cod larvae aren’t easily able to find the food they need to grow, fewer of them make it to their first birthday.

And without lots of cod that survive to be at least 4 years old (the age at which females begin spawning), the recovery of the entire stock can stall. The stock needs larger, older, more productive females to thrive in order to have any hope for recovery.

Warming and shifting

But why would the plankton be in such short supply? This is where climate change comes in. According to NOAA, temperature changes can cause the redistribution of plankton communities. In the Gulf of Maine, scientists have found fewer plankton in the same areas where cod populations have been found to be struggling. The shifts in temperature lead to the displacement of a critical food source, making it difficult for young cod to survive.

Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA
Larval cod. Photo courtesy NOAA

With the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas, this is an enormously alarming problem. More temperature changes and the shifting of plankton populations could make it even harder for New England cod populations to return to healthy, sustainable levels.

While the cod crisis is the result of many factors – but the loss of tiny zooplankton is a big problem. When considering how to best help cod stocks recover, fishery managers must take into account the effects of climate change, or else risk the total collapse of the species.

BOO! Happy Halloween from this spooky species, the Monkfish


Photo courtesy Mike Beauregard via Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Halloween, we’ve decided to highlight one of the more creepy looking fish that can be found in the waters off of New England. The monkfish (Lophius americanus), also known as goose-fish, anglerfish, and sea-devil, is considered a delicacy abroad, but until recently has been overlooked in America, perhaps due to its obtrusive appearance.

The monkfish is highly recognizable, with its brown, tadpole-shaped body, and its gaping, fang-filled mouth. These eerie-looking fish can be found from Newfoundland to Georges Bank, and all the way down to North Carolina. They prefer to dwell on the sandy or muddy ocean-floor, where they feed on a variety of small lobsters, fish, and eels. Monkfish are typically found at depths of 230-330 feet, but have been caught in waters as deep as 2,700 feet; they have also been known to occasionally rise to the surface and consume small, unsuspecting birds. Females can grow up to forty inches and males up to thirty-five inches, and both can weigh up to seventy pounds. The average market size fish is around seventeen to twenty inches long.

Before the 1960s, monkfish were considered to be undesirable bycatch. However, in the wake of the collapse of the New England Atlantic Cod fishery, the monkfish has slowly started to become a more common alternative, in part due to awareness campaigns about “underutilized species” in New England. Now, monkfish is caught to supply both international and domestic demand – the tail is prized for its firm texture and sweet taste, perfect for baking and poaching, and the liver is used in Japanese sushi.

In fact, in the last two decades, fishing has increased so dramatically that monkfish stocks started to decline. Landings peaked in 1997 at sixty million pounds. However, thanks to the quick action of both the United States and Canada, a management plan was put in place and the stock population started to increase and stabilize. Landings now average around thirty-five million pounds annually. Monkfish are caught using trawls, gillnets, and dredges. The fishery is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council. These organizations do not impose annual catch limits, but do limit daily catches as well as limit access to the fishery. Nevertheless, the catch is still exceeding target catch levels in certain locations.

Current threats to monkfish are common among New England marine species: warming temperatures, ocean acidification, and habitat loss.

NOAA Fishwatch considers monkfish to be well managed and a “smart seafood choice” – however, it is still vulnerable, and the fishery should continue to be closely monitored, or it could suffer the same fate as other groundfish fisheries.

So, if you are looking for a spooky-themed seafood dish for this weekend’s festivities, it might be time to give monkfish a try… It would also make one unique Halloween costume!

National Seafood Month: The Power of the Local Consumer

October is National Seafood Month! To celebrate, I spoke with Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood, an organization committed to supporting the state’s

Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood. Photo courtesy NHCS
Andrea Tomlinson, General Manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood. Photo courtesy NHCS

fishing industry and ensuring community access to fresh, locally caught seafood.

We hear a lot about sustainable seafood in New England, but what does it really mean, and how can we, as consumers (and seafood lovers), impact the future of the fishing industry – all the while eating more healthy fish?

AY: What is “sustainable seafood”?

AT: I think few people understand what it really means – as more people use the term, it seems to have lost meaning. For me, sustainable seafood simply means that our fishermen are only taking an amount of a particular population that does not prevent parent fish from reproducing at the same level the following year. If fishermen leave the pregnant and older fish alone, and take just the younger fish, it’s more likely to be sustainable. The fish population must be able to sustain itself while also being fished for commercial purposes.

AY: Do you think most of the industry fishes this way?

AT: No. In the past, it was a free for all. Fishermen took whatever they wanted — cod was our fish, there was lots of it, so we took lots of it. Today, our small New England fishermen are still fishing the same amount (and taking the parent fish), but there are other, bigger players in the game. Once cod was shown to be a successful industry, the number of fishermen increased – and now the populations are suffering because of it.

Our local fishermen never had to be conscious about [the amount they could catch] before. In order to stay in business, you want to take the biggest and most fish you can. When you take this traditional way of fishing and compound it with new catch regulations (and a perceived lack of communication from those enforcing the regulations), and more and bigger players fishing in the area, that’s how we ended up where we are today, with the fishing industry in crisis.

AY: What are “underutilized fish” (formerly called “trash fish”) and how could they help the industry and/or economy?

New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS
New England is home to an abundance of the spiny dogfish shark. Photo courtesy of NHCS

AT: In New England, there are certain types of fish that we have a lot of, but that just aren’t as popular as cod or haddock. There’s the dogfish shark, which is a shark but they are small – about

three-and-a-half to four feet in length. In Europe, they are commonly used in fish and chips. Here in New England, we have lots of it. So much so, that they are almost considered overpopulated, making it a great alternative for consumers, especially since whatever you can do with cod, you can do with dogfish.

AY: But it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

AT: Right. When people hear “shark” and “dogfish,” they don’t like that. But as soon as you tell them how to prepare it, and that it holds up well in the freezer, and it seasons well, and is cheap – that makes a difference.

AY: Are there other underutilized fish in New England?

AT: There’s the King Whiting, a type of Silver Hake. It’s a delectable, thick, firm white fish that’s high in protein and omega-3s. It’s good for grilling or sautéing, and the fillet is just as large as one from a cod or haddock. And there’s also the Monkfish, which is an incredibly scary-looking fish on the outside – and delicious on the inside. We hear it called the “poor man’s lobster.” It tastes just like lobster, but for a fraction of the price.

AY: How does a Community Supported Fishery work? Is this model feasible in other places?

AT: The way fishing in New England works now, most fishermen sell everything they catch all at once at an auction, instead of buying directly “off the boat.” So, as a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF, New Hampshire Community Seafood gives the fishermen an incentive – we’d give them, say, an extra $0.25 per pound of a certain fish that’s higher than what they would receive at an auction. For dogfish, it’s actually a $1.10 per pound incentive! A CSF is really the only way to buy off the boat now. We buy a small portion of what the local fishermen catch, but it’s something.

There are about 50 CSFs in the United States. On land, we’ve seen a growing popularity in supporting the local farmer, and this fits in well with that model. You pay up front, and get what’s ripe each week – it works the same way with fish. Community members can support local fishermen and the local economy in this way. So, the challenge is to get people to realize that underutilized fish are just as delicious as cod and haddock.

In New England in particular, when people hear that the fishing industry is in crisis, that affects them. Many who grew up here are enamored by our iconic fishing traditions – maybe they have good memories of fishing, or they feel that it’s a big part of the culture. When you add in the “locavore” mentality, as well as those who are trying to eat healthier, we see a real opportunity to appeal to a lot of people.

AY: So consumers can have a real impact here.

AT: Yes. The fish are there – all we need is more consumers and more buyers, and it can make a greater impact. We are also working with restaurants and chefs; they will buy underutilized fish and put it on the menu, creating more exposure and making it easier for consumers to try something new. Right now we are in 10 restaurants and a hospital cafeteria, and are continuing to expand.

AY: How can people get involved?

AT: We are mostly based in Portsmouth, NH, but our CSF has 17 pickup locations in New Hampshire, one in Northern Massachusetts, and we’re partnering with Monadnock food cooperative in Keene, NH. (All of these are listed on the New Hampshire Community Seafood website). We also have a newsletter that informs locals about what’s new, how to cook underutilized fish, recipes, and more.

AY: Anything else you would like to add?

AT: Three years ago, there were 26 local fishermen in New Hampshire, and now there are only 9 left. We buy fish from all of them. The industry is in desperate need of support, both from communities and from the NMFS [regulators].

In addition to community-supported fishing organizations like NHCS, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue series aims to educate the public about abundant fish that are well-managed and are not harvested primarily due to low market demand.

And NOAA recently announced the public availability of, a resource that provides up-to-date information about fish, including the ability to look up a certain fish to see where it’s available, whether it’s a smart and sustainable option, nutrition information, and more.

Would you (or have you) tried dogfish, whiting, or monkfish? Leave a comment below!


Celebrating New England Lobsters on National Lobster Day

Cashes Ledge Lobster
A lobster at Cashes Ledge. Photo courtesy Brett Seymour/CLF

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that New Englanders love lobster. It’s weaved into our culture and history, and it’s unimaginable to think of New England without this famed summer seafood.

Few know that lobsters were once so plentiful in New England that Native Americans used them as fertilizer for their fields, and as bait for fishing. And before trapping was common, “catching” a lobster meant picking one up along the shoreline!

During World War II, lobster was viewed as a delicacy, so it wasn’t rationed like other food sources. Lobster meat filled a demand for protein-rich sources, and continued to increase in popularity in post-war years, which encouraged more people to join the industry.

Popular ever since, now when most people are asked what comes to mind when they think of New England, seafood – especially lobster – is typically at the top of the list.

An industry under threat

We love our New England lobster, but there’s evidence suggesting they’re in danger of moving away from their longtime home. That’s because lobster is under threat from climate change, the effects of which can already be seen on this particular species.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of ocean areas. Until last winter’s uncharacteristically cold temperatures, the prior few years saw an increase in catchable lobster – as the warmer temperatures cause them to molt early, and they move toward inshore waters after molting. However, continued warming will ultimately encourage the lobsters to move north to find colder waters, where they spend the majority of their time.

This is already happening in southern New England, where the industry is already suffering, seeing lobsters migrating northward.

And we’re still learning about the potential for damage caused by ocean acidification, as well as how lobsters may be affected by an increase in colder than usual New England winters.

As we celebrate one of New England’s iconic species on National Lobster Day, let’s remember that slowing down climate change is an important priority for ensuring that future generations can enjoy not Canadian or Icelandic lobster, but New England lobster. Click here to support Conservation Law Foundation’s efforts on fighting climate change.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures


Final Hours to Protect Ocean Treasures – Please Share!

A cunner swims through healthy kelp forest; Cashes Ledge, Gulf of Maine.Today is the last day to submit comments to the Obama Administration letting them know why you support a Marine National Monument in New England. If you haven’t yet, please sign our petition to add your voice!

We have just hours left to show President Obama that there is overwhelming public support for permanently protecting these special ocean places. Can you also take a moment to share the petition (or this blog post) with friends and family, so we can deliver as many signatures as possible? Find it at

Over the last few years, we have explored and learned about the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine, and why it’s so special. The biodiversity and scientific importance of this place has been well-documented, and we’re so grateful that you have been on this journey with us! Tonight, our efforts to raise awareness and support for permanent protection for the Cashes Ledge Area culminate at a NOAA public meeting in Providence, RI, where the agency will hear from people like you about why this area deserves Monument protection.

Our growing coalition has designated the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the areas in most need of protection. If you are in the Providence area, we encourage you to attend!

NOAA Public Meeting on New England Canyons and Seamounts
Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, from 6-8 p.m.
Providence Marriott Downtown
1 Orms St, Providence, RI. Sessions/College/Canal Room

Mussels on Cashes Ledge

Fish Friday Finale

Over the course of the summer, we’ve been showcasing some of the fish (and other species) that make their home in New England’s ocean waters: Some of these species are endangered and in need of protections (see #SaveOceanTreasures), and some are considered underutilized because of low demand. Others are just fun or silly (or silly-looking!).

One of the main goals of the New England Ocean Odyssey project is to unlock the mysteries of the ocean: What creatures live there? What important habitats are out there, and why should we care about them? We want to let people know about this whole other world that exists just beyond what we can see. To that end, we hope you’ve found this series fun and informative, and we look forward to providing you with more “Creature Features” in the future!!

Now, in case you missed any – a Fish Friday Wrap-Up:

Atlantic_Salmon_Credit_TimothyKnepp_FWSSOS: Save Our (Atlantic) Salmon!


The Basking Shark: A Modern Marine Mystery Basking Shark


The Atlantic Wolffish – Antifreeze Included 1.13_Matthew_Lawrence



Silver Hake: A Scrumptious and Sustainable Cod SubstituteSilverHake



Hooded seal The Hooded Seal: Battling Foes with a Bladder Nose!


Atlantic Halibut – Don’t Let the Googly Eyes Fool YouAtlanticHalibut


Acadian Redfish: Consume Regularly for a Healthy OceanAcadian_Redfish_Credit_NOAA_Fishwatch



20091114 AT SEA : FRENCH POLYNESIA A juvenile oceaninc white tip shark swims past an apparently abandoned fish aggregating device (FAD) made of fishing nets, buoys and bamboo sticks, floats at sea in French Polynesian Waters off the Marquesas Islands at LAT 09:46.3 SOUTH / LONG 142 38.4 WEST. Greenpeace is calling for a global ban on FADs. GREENPEACE / ALEX HOFFORD Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, the Comeback Shark 


A Rollercoaster of Demand for Atlantic Pollock Atlantic Pollock