The collapse of cod: Will we fillet the last fish?

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We Americans have what we see as a long set of traditions — cultural, ecological and, of course, economic — with codfish. It was the codfish, after all, that drew European colonists to North America, and codfish that bankrolled the first waves of New World settlers, from Massachusetts to Newfoundland. A codfish, then, is seldom just a codfish.

Although it usually isn’t mentioned expressly in the mythology surrounding the birth and rise of our nation, codfish ritual is so tightly enmeshed in coastal New England communities that after 40 years (and really much longer than that) of trying to preserve this important stock, we have at every turn made our decisions for the good of the humanity tied up in the stock’s future. Like most major environmental issues of the last 100 years, the failure of codfish has been the seemingly unavoidable consequence of our wildly dysfunctional relationship with a species we have viewed as a boundless commodity and an object of near-religious entitlement.

Chief among many ironies, of course, is the power of tradition that seems finally to have pushed cod stocks on our side of the North Atlantic to the brink of oblivion. That fishermen are now rallying against the tyranny of a management regime that has never come close to enacting sufficient protections for these fish makes it abundantly clear that the slaughter of our founding fish won’t stop until we’ve filleted the last cod in our ocean.

The only realistic way to rebuild a cod stock stuck in a perpetual cycle of collapse, momentary rebound, renewed exploitation and collapse would be to stop all directed cod fishing — recreational and commercial — for somewhere between three and 10 years, during which time we’d need to send a fair chunk of the existing fleet to the scrap yard. No asterisks, no caveats or disclaimers. The cod problem was a simple issue of relentless fishing pressure and habitat deterioration inflicted by a too large and too efficient fleet.

With my earliest fish-writing jobs came the illusion of the power of the pen, and the candor tapered off quite rapidly. As I dedicated more years to an on-the-fly study of fishery management — delving into the New England Fishery Management Council’s then-30-year statutory campaign to stabilize a failing fishery — I quickly lost my bearings. Everyone involved in management, as regulator or regulated, concurred that the problem and its possible solutions were impossibly complex. The living, breathing document that encompassed 30 years of regulatory wrangling — the Groundfish Fishery Management Plan — was evidence enough that one would have to be a stark-raving kook to even attempt to plumb the depths of the regulatory quagmire.

At nearly every turning point in 40 years of cod fishing, we've erred in the direction of fleet over fish.

It has only been in the last five of the 15 or so intervening years that the ugly reality has snapped back into sharp focus. Where there are precious jobs for coastal communities, there is political power ready to lean on the regulatory process. And provisions in the driving piece of federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, require that managers weigh out the “best available science” by way of landings and stock assessment data but also manage fisheries to maximize economic yield via the largest biologically acceptable harvest.

In theory, the council’s marching orders have been to balance the immediate and long-range fishery economics against the health of the fish stock. In practice, the early years of the New England Fishery Management Council — 1977 to the mid-1990s, say — witnessed a buildup and modernization of the domestic fleet that almost immediately eclipsed the gross fishing capacity of the foreign fleets we had just expelled from our waters.

Meanwhile, with no sound precedent on which to base early management efforts, the Fisheries Service and NEFMC bumbled through a whole host of ill-fated quota schemes, spawning closures, minimum fish sizes and trip limits, mesh and other gear restrictions, all the while adding a nightmarish host of exemptions and other highly intricate and ineffective measures to a growing thicket of fishery statute. Enforcement became virtually impossible, cheating was rampant, and fishermen learned myriad ways to work the loopholes, gray areas and statutory flex points. Facing a growing legacy of failure and mounting concern among scientists that a seriously overcapitalized fleet, rampant overfishing and widespread habitat destruction would soon wipe out key species on key grounds, the NEFMC fell into a pattern of kicking the ugliest choices down the road years at a time.

Fishermen learned early that data is fishery management’s Achilles’ heel. That is, the science in which management decisions should be grounded is inherently “soft.” The name of the game in fishery science is stock assessment, an obscure branch of statistics that attempts to estimate the actual size of a scattered, unseen fish population using erratic data sets — commercial landings, recreational landings, trawl-survey fish counts, estimated fish mortality rates, growth rates and spawning success, among others. Some of the input numbers, such as commercial landings in more recent years, are more reliable than others, but on balance, most of the population dynamics/stock assessment scientists are quick to admit that their work is, at points, as much an art form as a mathematical exercise.

The scientific yield that feeds regulatory deliberations is best used as an indicator of trend, but over years it’s amazing how reliable such information becomes. Unfortunately, from a political standpoint, soft data is soft data, and when there are constituent jobs on the line, fish-town politicians have gotten serious mileage out of this uncertainty. Fishery managers, stuck between scientists predicting collapse and fishermen irate over the cost of regulations, have consistently erred in the direction of humanity. “If you’re not 100 percent certain, let my guys keep fishing” has played a key role in the endless pummeling of the codfish resource.

Fishery managers, then, live an endless political Catch-22: When they constrain fishing, they take food off the tables of hard-working fourth-generation fishermen and destroy centuries-old traditions. When they don’t restrict the fleet, fish get pounded, stocks crash and the same fourth-generation fishermen come forward to chastise them for not protecting fishermen from themselves. If things get bad enough, the fleet demands disaster funding, then strikes up a dialogue about global warming’s impact on codfish migratory patterns.

It’s only as complicated as the process of rationalizing or passing off blame for 40 years of codfish failure. You can split hairs, always looking back at the numbers to fix them on paper, to justify a few more codfish now — chip away at the battered stock until you’ve whittled it down to a broken remnant of something that used to be good. Try to nurse a failing operation along in the margins of a marginal fishery. Do what we just did for 35 years or so.

We’re losing our codfish either way. Beating on a crashed stock never ends well. The last choice we may well get to make now is whether we’d like to mothball a tradition for a decade or so, leave the codfish alone, let them fill in again, grow some 30-pounders. After all, the measure of a tradition is whether you still want it when keeping it costs you.

February 2015 issue