Will Atlantic Cod Exist in 2036?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Cod today.
2036?
2036?

Imagine it’s 20 years from now, and your grandchild is about to head to bed – but first, she wants to hear a favorite bedtime story, “the one about the fish.” You pull it off the shelf – Mark Kurlansky’s The Cod’s Tale – and begin reading. Unbidden, her eyes widen at the vivid illustrations of the fish with a single chin whisker, at how it has millions of babies, and at how it gave birth to this country.

Every time you read her the story, she asks the same question: “Can we go catch a cod tomorrow?” Every time, you have to tell her there aren’t any more cod in New England. And, every time she asks: “Why?” But you never really have a good answer for her.

Farfetched? Maybe. But unfortunately, local extinction of New England’s Atlantic cod population is no longer out of the realm of possibility.

No Happy Ending in Sight for Cod
The crisis in New England’s cod fishery was once again on the agenda at the New England Fishery Management Council’s December meeting in Portland, Maine. And once again, managers failed to take the basic actions needed for a concerted effort to restore this iconic fish.

In addition to the collapse of the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine, New England is facing even greater declines of cod on Georges Bank, the historically important fishing area east of Cape Cod.

The outlook for cod keeps getting worse, and the “actions” taken by the Council are so unlikely to make a difference that we must continue our call to save cod.

The Worst of the Worst
Some recent analyses have concluded that the cod population on Georges Bank is the lowest ever recorded – roughly 1 percent of what scientists would consider a healthy population. Other estimates put the population at only about 3 to 5 percent of the healthy target. The cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is hovering for the second year in a row at roughly 3 percent of the targeted healthy population.

At its meeting last week, the Council did set new, lower catch limits for the severely depleted Georges Bank cod, but, true to form, those limits don’t go far enough. The Council is clearly in denial about the state of this fishery. If there is even a chance the number is 1 percent, this should be cause for major distress among Council members and fishermen alike.

The Council’s actions (or, really, lack of action) leave me wondering, again, whether anyscience would ever be “enough” to compel them to halt the fishing of cod entirely.

Habitat Loss Adds Fuel to the Fire
Astoundingly, the Council also decided earlier this year to strip protection for important cod habitat on Georges Bank – amounting to a loss of some 81 percent of the formerly protected cod habitat.

To recover, depleted fish populations need large areas protected from fishing and fishing gears; they need protected habitat where they can find food and shelter and reproduce; and they need large areas where female cod can grow old and reproduce prolifically. However, our fisheries managers – who are entrusted with safeguarding these precious resources for future generations as well as for current fishermen – ignore this science and continue to stubbornly deny the potential scope of this problem.

This is an especially irresponsible stance in light of climate change. Not only are New England’s cod struggling to recover from decades of overfishing and habitat degradation, now the rapid rise in the region’s sea temperatures is further stressing their productivity. Protected habitats help marine species survive ecological stresses like warming waters.

If a Cod Fish Dies But No One Records It, Did It Ever Really Exist?
As if matters couldn’t get worse, the Council also voted to cut back significantly on the numbers of observers that groundfishing boats would have to have on-board to record what fish are actually coming up in their nets. This is little more than the Council’s blessing of unreported discards of cod and flounder and other depleted fish.

We should be protecting more of these areas, not fewer; we should be doing more for these iconic fish, not less. So why is the Council making it so much harder for cod to recover? Perhaps it is simply contrary to human nature to expect the Council’s fishermen members to impose harsh measures on themselves when the benefits may only be seen by future generations. Perhaps federal fishery councils comprising active fishermen only work well with healthy fisheries.

Federal officials at NOAA Fisheries will have the final say on these Council decisions to strip habitat protections, cutback on monitoring, and continue fishing on cod. We can only hope those officials will start taking the tough but necessary actions, giving New Englanders at least a semblance of hope that our grandchildren will be able to catch a codfish, not just read about one in a book.

New England’s Endangered Living Fossils

Tomorrow, the US will observe Endangered Species Day, an opportunity to “recognize
the national conservation effort to protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats.”

If you’re a regular New England Ocean Odyssey reader, you’re probably already familiar with some of New England’s endangered marine species—Atlantic salmon, leatherback sea turtles, and North Atlantic right whales, for example. You also know how important protecting important habitat areas can be to the conservation and recovery of these incredible animals.

In honor of Endangered Species Day, we thought we’d introduce you to one of New England’s weirder endangered species: sturgeon.

There are actually two species of sturgeon found in New England—shortnose sturgeon and Atlantic sturgeon. Once, sturgeon were so common in east coast streams and coastal waters that settlers considered them a navigational hazard, since they tended to leap out of the water and directly into passing boats.

These once-plentiful sturgeon populations have declined sharply since the 1800s due to overfishing for meat and caviar. Shortnose sturgeon have long been considered endangered throughout their entire range, which stretches from New Brunswick to Florida. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service placed a coast-wide moratorium on catching Atlantic sturgeon in 1998. In 2012, most populations of Atlantic sturgeon were also placed on the endangered species list, with the exception of the Gulf of Maine population, which is listed as threatened.

Sturgeon are basically living fossils and are one of the oldest existing families of bony fish—they’ve been around since the Cretaceous period, 120 million years ago. They don’t have scales, but are covered with bony plates called scutes. Atlantic sturgeon can reach an insane 60 years old and fifteen feet long. Within the past month, a six-foot sturgeon washed up in the Delaware River and a seven-foot sturgeon washed up in the Connecticut River—and both of these fish were just juveniles.

Atlantic sturgeon are anadromous, meaning they split their time between freshwater and saltwater. Generally, sturgeon remain in brackish streams until they’re about six years old. They then reach maturity in the ocean before returning upstream to spawn. Female sturgeon don’t spawn until they’re about 15 years old and only spawn once every 2-6 years, meaning populations are slow to grow and recover. Sturgeon larvae also need cool, clean, flowing water to survive, making upstream habitat restoration a crucial part of sturgeon recovery.

Interested in learning more about these endangered fish? NOAA is holding an Endangered Species Day Sturgeon Tweet Chat with NOAA Fisheries Scientist Jason Kahn today from 2-3 p.m. ET. Tweet @NOAAFisheries with the hashtag #ESDaychat to join in.

Image via NOAA/Robert Michelson

Celebrating a Herring Victory

It has been a slightly better year to be a river herring (alewife or blueback herring) in New England. For the first time since the 19th century these anadromous fish – fish that migrate from saltwater to freshwater to breed –  made it to the Upper Mystic Lake under their own power, thanks to a brand new fish ladder on the Mystic Lakes Dam. This is cause for celebration, and we’d like to have this kind of party more often in New England.

River herring are an important part of both river and ocean ecosystems. They can keep plankton blooms from impairing water quality in freshwater (maybe this could help the Mystic River get a better grades), and in saltwater they provide food for striped bass, bluefin tuna, cod, bluefish, and many other commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important animals. They’re the aquatic equivalent of rabbits – they keep the grass from getting too tall and they feed the big animals. But they need to be able to migrate upstream in order to breed like rabbits.

CLF has been working to improve the health of river herring in New England for some time now. Several months ago we filed a lawsuit against EPA to restore alewives to the St. Croix River in Maine– an action necessary to undo the State of Maine’s intentional obstruction of these fish from their native range.

Ultimately, EPA agreed with CLF and our contention that the fish must be restored. So did the Passamaquoddy Tribe, joined by other Maine tribes, who have requested Maine’s Governor Le Page to repeal the state law preventing the fish from migrating. The State of Maine has ignored EPA’s finding and the tribal requests and refuses to let the alewives through. CLF filed suit against the State of Maine in October, to continue our efforts on behalf of these native fish. Hopefully Maine will let the alewives in the St. Croix River finally go home.

CLF is a member of the Herring Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups that formed to help protect and restore ocean wildlife and ecosystems in the Northeast. The Herring Alliance is working to stop the wasteful bycatch of river herring by large, industrial trawlers, and is also working to protect ecologically important Atlantic herring (an exclusively saltwater herring) by putting an end to overfishing. Now that would be a party!

Note: The beautiful photograph above was an entry in our New England Ocean Odyssey photo contest from the talented J.R. Cummings.You can enter your photo, too! Find out more here and enter here