It’s said cod were once so plentiful in New England they would throw themselves into a boat. It’s said you could walk across their backs to shore.
Gloucester, Massachusetts, grew up around cod. The waterfront teemed with boats and fishermen, heaps of fish thrashing in wire baskets. Boats were inherited from fathers and shipyards boasted of operating since 1684. As late as the 1980s, the cod were so abundant and large (30-50lb each) that the fishermen still brought in big hauls. Cod remains the state fish of Massachusetts.
Today, you’re unlikely to find fresh Atlantic cod in any American food shop. The vast majority of the cod for sale is frozen, shipped in from Norway or Iceland. New England’s cod population has been diminished by new fishing technology, too many boats and foreign vessels, and poor management decisions. Both major stocks of North Atlantic cod in US waters – the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod – are overfished. With the climate crisis warming waters and disrupting cod spawning behaviour and food sources, many scientists wonder if the stocks will survive at all.
In Gloucester, that has meant regulation to protect the stocks – including catch limits, monitoring and no-fishing zones. These have placed a burden on fishermen, many of whom dispute the scientific data, creating tension between some scientists and fishermen and threatening the identity of person and place in a town where culture and economy were, for centuries, intertwined around cod.
“We’ve been regulated out of existence,” former Gloucester fisherman Sam Sanfilippo said in 2017. “This used to be the biggest fishing community in the world. Ice companies, wharves, fish dealers, truckers, supermarkets … All through high school, I was always a fisherman. And here I am today: recycler, bike seller, furniture-maker.
“I’m 50 years old and I don’t know what the hell I am.”
Both scientists and fishers agree the cod fishery is at a crisis point. Where they differ is the source of that crisis.
On the working docks of Gloucester, fishermen see heavy regulation and international competition, not to mention a pandemic that has all but wiped out commercial demand.
The pandemic “is likely to highlight the importance of having a reliable, healthy and well-managed natural food source”, says Vito Giacalone, a former fisherman and president of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, via email. “Consumers are so fortunate that the New England waters are still teeming with traditional groundfish species like haddock, flounder, pollock, hake, AND COD [emphasis Giacalone’s].”
Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, says the problem is that heavy regulation has hurt fishers.
“We don’t want to fish without regulation – we want regulation. We even pushed for it early on. Foreign boats were vacuuming the ocean. We’re still dealing with that damage,” Sanfillippo says. “But the government could ease regulations so that our fishermen could get a decent price for their fish.
“Before, people used to go out fishing and catch whatever they wanted. Now we’re the most regulated fishery in the world. We’re losing the industry,” she says. “We have no young people. Young people want to plan for the future: you could start a fishing business, but the government might take it away. The freedom is gone.”
Scientists see things differently.
“I don’t see much good news for cod,” says Dr Gareth Lawson, a scientist who has worked with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He notes that the biomass index for the Gulf of Maine last autumn was the lowest on record.
“The populations are contracting. Big picture-wise, we have to shepherd these last fish through to the future. Sometimes you have to side with the fish.”
Dr Micah Dean, the senior marine fisheries biologist at Massachusetts’ division of marine fisheries, agrees. “By most measures, cod in the Gulf of Maine are at a low point. Many of our fishermen will tell you that they aren’t seeing this decline, and have a difficult time believing the scientific perspective on the cod stock,” he says.
“But there are good reasons why fishermen have this perspective. Regulations shape the way fishermen see the cod population.”
For instance, he notes that a high-minimum mesh size for trawls and gillnets lets most small cod escape from fishermen’s nets, which he argues prevents them from witnessing the alarming lack of juvenile recruitment.
“In addition, there’s an extensive system of areas closed to fishing, many of which were designed to protect spawning cod. This prevents fishermen from observing the lack of larger adult cod returning to spawning grounds.
“Ultimately,” he says, “we shouldn’t expect fishermen and scientists to see the same things, given the way each group observes the population.”
What’s more, the laws that help protect vulnerable fish stocks – such as the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act (1976) which requires fishery managers in New England and seven other US regions to prevent overfishing through catch limits and use of the best available science – are not always fully enforced. In the case of cod, economic interests have often triumphed over conservation efforts.
“The Magnuson-Stevens Act is, at heart, about economics – maximizing the yield of fisheries – but it does have provisions to ensure sustainability,” Lawson says. “If a stock is overfished, the law says it needs to be put into a rebuilding plan and overfishing must be ended. We’re firmly, unequivocally in that danger zone.
“We’re on our second rebuilding plan for Gulf of Maine cod, and there is between a 0 and 1% chance of rebuilding the stock by the 2024 target date. Mind you, that’s in the absence of any fishing.”
The climate crisis will worsen existing problems like Gloucester’s. Many of the old ways will not hold.
“Fishermen are understandably sensitive about tradition,” says Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a Harvard-trained scientist and co-author of Elizabeth Warren’s Blue New Deal. “But there’s a painful thing we have to realize: traditions don’t scale. That transition – where we have to give up some of our traditions because they don’t work any more – it’s painful.”
The best foot forward would be collaborative – cooperation between science and industry. The department of fisheries has recently worked with fishing captains and industry representatives to design a new cod survey. This information has been used to develop smartphone apps and guidance maps to point recreational anglers toward places that reduce accidental bycatch of cod.
Lawson also wants to see improved bycatch-minimizing technologies, so the commercial industry can exploit plentiful species such as haddock while giving cod a break.
Sanfilippo argues that choosing to buy more fish from local fishermen – instead of frozen, foreign fish – will also help. “Consumers need to purchase fresh, local seafood so that fishing communities like Gloucester can keep on,” Sanfilippo says. “We’re trying to feed you the best, natural protein left in the world.”
She points to the Fisherman’s Wharf fish share plan, where people can pay for a week’s worth of fresh fish, supporting local fishermen with sustainable practices.
“You’re supporting the farmers this way,” she says. “Now support the fishermen.”
Ultimately, should the fleet continue to age and fishing become any less sustainable, the fishermen may no longer be able to make a living. Then the challenge will be how to move people compassionately from unsustainable to sustainable work.
Has Johnson seen such a successful transition before? “Sadly, no. In tropical nations, when they reduce fishing, fishermen become tour guides so that people can continue making a living on the water. But this won’t happen in the US. Our fishermen are not going to become snorkeling guides.”
The Blue New Deal imagines job opportunities in aquaculture and renewable energy projects. “Fishermen want to know: how can I still make a living from the sea? That’s so important,” Johnson says. “People who are water people, you can’t be easily taken off the water – it’s a part of you.”
Whatever the alternative, fishing for cod is not something that can easily be replaced in the culture of a community such as Gloucester.
“Many of these fishermen – they want to leave – but they can’t,” Angela Sanfilippo says. “These people are birds who cannot be kept in a cage. Their life belongs to the sea.”