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.