Since the 1600s, cod have been central to the US Northeast’s development. The fish were once so abundant that you could almost walk across the ocean on their backs. Since then, Atlantic cod populations have plummeted, and fisheries managers have tried for years to rebuild the population. Attempts to make up for decades of mismanagement and overfishing have ranged from changes in quotas to closures of the fishery. But measures like these take time, and the stock has not yet recovered. In the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, recent estimates place cod at only 3 and 7 percent of their target levels, respectively. And even those targets are much lower than the populations’ former abundance.
Two new proposals by the New England Fishery Management Council, a government body responsible for the fisheries in the region, threaten to undo years of work to protect the Atlantic cod and other New England species,and may deliver a knockout blow to Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks may be the knockout blow. First, the council is preparing to drastically reduce the amount of protected habitat in New England waters, including by nearly 80 percent around the Georges Bank. The plan would allow for expansion of bottom trawling and dredging, two of the most destructive fishing methods, into protected habitats. In addition to reducing habitat protections, the council wants to suspend a program that places observers on fishing vessels to monitor compliance. But without monitoring the numbers of fish being taken out of the ocean, there is no way to accurately determine the health of their populations or ensure that quotas are respected.
The fishing industry had agreed to eventually pay for the monitoring. But as federal funds near expiration, later this year, the industry is trying to renege on its responsibilities by pressuring the council to eliminate the program. When the bank balance is low, it isn’t time to fire the accountant. Pressure for even more change looms. Atlantic scallops are one of the most lucrative parts of the American fishing industry, responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shellfish every year. Scallop companies have a well-funded industry group, paradoxically named the Fisheries Survival Fund, which spends more than a quarter of a million dollars a year advocating for their interests, often at the expense of other fisheries. Dissatisfied with its current profits, the scallop industry is pushing the council to reopen portions of the most important New England cod habitat on Georges Bank, where the bottom-scraping scallop dredges would destroy any hope of rebuilding cod populations.
Similar pressure is coming from the cod, haddock and flounder industries, which are in a perpetual state of crisis as fishermen work with small catch limits that were set by managers trying to rebuild the populations. In the last two years, the New England fishery was declared a disaster and received more than $30 million in relief funding from the federal government to help with the losses. To stay viable for another year, the industries claim that they need additional access to closed areas.
But as they try to stay in business in the short term, they are risking the long-term existence of their fishery. Closures, however painful, are vital for their survival. Weakening protections will undoubtedly continue the collapse of groundfish stocks, including Atlantic cod.
The Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service have the final say about changes in protections and observer coverage. In particular, the latter has repeatedly stressed that any changes to habitat conservation must show that they will improve rather than degrade habitat conservation. This is a high bar that the current council proposal will have a hard time overcoming.
The Ocean Prosperity Roadmap, a recent set of studies by a consortium of academic and nonprofit researchers, demonstrated that responsible management practices, including habitat protection, quotas and catch monitoring would have not only lasting environmental benefits but also clear economic advantages. The authors of the study analyzed thousands of fisheries around the world and found that the benefits of sustainable policies outweighed the costs by an average ratio of 10 to 1. The temporary price of protecting habitats and monitoring and enforcing quotas should be seen as an investment in the future. It may take years to begin to fully appreciate the returns on these investments, but anything less would be irresponsible, and ultimately far more painful to the people who depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods.
A Knockout Blow for American Fish Stocks