Fish vs. Fisherman vs. Fishery management: The decline of Atlantic Cod

Cape Cod does not deserve to have “cod” in its name anymore. Once plentiful in New England waters, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) are now extremely hard to come by and many believe that stocks are on the brink of full collapse. Cod, like many fish, are food – for marine animals (as juveniles) and for people (as adults). For many years, the healthy fishery was able to sustain a large enough population to keep all these predators fed. Then the story changed…

There is a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to figuring out what factors may have contributed to the decline of Atlantic Cod: overfishing, climate change, poor fishery management, change in spawning behavior…the list goes on. However, regardless of the reason why cod stocks are dwindling, all parties agree that changes are in order.

Cape Cod was originally named for the plentiful codfish that could be found in surrounding waters. For many years, cod stocks were rich and seemingly inexhaustible; an entire industry was built around cod fishing. Humans depend on protein to survive, of which fish are a huge and important source [1]. At first cod fishing was a direct source of sustenance for fisherman and their families, but as the fishery grew, the fish no longer moved directly from net to plate. Instead, cod were traded as a source a revenue to supply other food and other essential commodities [2]. Seeing that more fish equaled more money, fisherman increased the demand for better fishing technology. Vessel and net improvements made it easier for them to catch more fish with less effort, and soon the cod population began to suffer.

This is when the fishery scientists and managers joined the conversation and advocated for a reform to limit overexploitation and preserve the fishery [3]. Yet, no one was willing to cut back; many fishermen depended on cod fishing for their entire livelihood while big companies wanted to continue to capitalize on the rich resources in the Northeast. This growth was not sustainable, as one fishery can only support a finite number of livelihoods [4]; so the stocks began to decline, and in the 1990’s the fishery collapsed.

Following a series of closures and rebuilding efforts, the New England cod fishery briefly re-opened in the mid-2000’s, but after a short time it was clear the ecosystem was so changed that stocks would not return to healthy levels. This phenomenon is not unique to cod, it is very difficult for stocks to replenish after serious decline [1]. Although small scale closures can help protect critical spawning areas, recreational and commercial exploitation can continue [5]. The solution is in cooperation between fisherman and policy makers. Initiatives such as collaborative science, catch-sharing, and government subsidies can help fisherman transition to more sustainable practices, as well as contribute valuable (and current) knowledge about the fishery to the regulatory process. For managers, working with fisherman can serve as a reminder that a fishery is not simply a biological system to be managed, but that the policies and regulations set in place have implications for people too. Without cooperation Atlantic cod may completely disappear, a situation in which everyone loses—the fisherman, the fishery managers, and the fish.

[1]       J.C. Rice, S.M. Garcia, Fisheries, food security, climate change and biodiversity, characteristics of the sector and perspectives on emerging issues, 68 (2011) 1343–1353.

[2]       S. Foale, D. Adhuri, P. Aliño, E.H. Allison, N. Andrew, P. Cohen, et al., Food security and the Coral Triangle Initiative, Mar. Policy. 38 (2012) 174–183. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2012.05.033.

[3]       J.A. Hutchings, R.A. Myers, What Can Be Learned from the Collapse of a Renewable Resource? Atlantic Cod, Gadus morhua , of Newfoundland and Labrador, Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 51 (1994) 2126–2146. doi:10.1139/f94-214.

[4]      J.D. Bell, M. Kronen, A. Vunisea, W.J. Nash, G. Keeble, A. Demmke, et al., Planning the use of fish for food security in the Pacific, Mar. Policy. 33 (2009) 64–76. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2008.04.002.

[5]       M.P. Armstrong, M.J. Dean, W.S. Hoffman, D.R. Zemeckis, T.A. Nies, D.E. Pierce, et al., The application of small scale fishery closures to protect Atlantic cod spawning aggregations in the inshore Gulf of Maine, Fish. Res. 141 (2013) 62–69. doi:10.1016/j.fishres.2012.09.009.


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