Photo: Max Lindenthaler Shuttestock
Cod has played a central role in the cultural history and economic development of New England fishing communities for more than 400 years.
The bottom-dwelling fish was once so plentiful in colonial America that it drew Europeans, including the early Vikings, across the Atlantic in search of productive fishing grounds. Cape Cod, a landmark for early explorers was also named in the species’ honour.
By the late 1600s, cod was so important to the success of early settlers that it was memorialised by the Massachusetts State House in the form a 4′ 11″ piece of solid pine.
In recent decades, however, the story of the humble cod has shifted to one of destruction.
Modernized technologies and more efficient fishing methods along with increased competition and toothless regulations have guided the cod industry to the brink of collapse.
Groundfishing -- or the catching of fish species that swim close to the ocean's bottom -- has been an integral part of the social, economic, and ecological fabric of the the Northeastern United States since the 17th century.
According to the Northeast Fisheries Science centre, groundfishing was the first colonial industry in America. In the early 1600s, New England waters teemed with schools of fish, which were caught using handlines from big, wooden schooners.
The colonies grew prosperous as cod fish was sold to Europe in one leg of a 'triangle trade' linking fish, sugar, and slaves.
Factory trawlers, giant fishing nets, and foreign competition led to a 70% decline in New England's groundfish by the 1970s
Although landings (the amount of catch that is brought to land) were initially checked by the available technology as well as limits to distribution and cold storage, the scene changed drastically in the 1930s following the introduction of steam-powered trawlers, and again in the 1960s with the emergence of distant water fleets from big fishing nations such as the Soviet Union and Japan.
An increasing number of factory trawlers compounded by foreign competition sent fish stocks into rapid decline by mid-century. Total commercial landings of Atlantic cod from the Gulf of Maine quadrupled between 1964 and 1977 from about 3,000 metric tons to more than 12,000 metric tons. By 1974, numbers of New England's groundfish declined by almost 70%, and the actual size of the cod decreased by nearly 75 centimeters.
In 1976, Congress claimed exclusive rights to the nation's fisheries: the amount of cod landed jumped from about 15,000 metric tons to a high of more than 39,000 metric tons over the next 6 years
In an effort to aid the development of the domestic fishing industry, Congress enacted the Magnuson Act of 1976, which effectively claimed all fishing rights within 200 miles of the American coast.
International fleets were gone and profits for fishermen were once again lucrative. Landings of cod increased rapidly and the money poured in. Between 1976 and 1982, the amount of cod landed, jumped from about 15,000 metric tons to a high of more than 39,000 metric tons.
Efforts to regulate overfishing by restricting the number of days fisherman are at sea have been largely ineffective
In U.S. waters, the Atlantic cod is assessed and managed by the The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) as two stocks: Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. In the past decade, the organisation has set many strict limits on cod fishing, including restricting the number of days fishermen are allowed at sea, the gear they may use, the size and amount of what they catch, and where they may fish.
But many scientists argue that the underlying problem remains: too many fisherman and not enough fish to go around.
A female cod can produce 9 million eggs in a single spawning — making them easy targets for commercial trawlers
In the past, fisherman have benefited from the cod's tendency to congregate in great numbers and the species' spawning behaviour.
During spawning, the cod gathers in massive clumps of hundreds of millions of fish. A large female can produce as much as nine million eggs in a single spawning. At this stage, mariners have the opportunity to scoop up entire stocks of cod with giant ocean trawlers. After spawning, the cod will head inshore, making them another easy target for commercial fishers.
In Georges Bank, a historically rich fishing ground responsible for the development of coastal fisheries in towns such as Gloucester and New Bedford, Massachusetts, the cod population is now one-tenth of the level needed to support a healthy population for long-term fishing.
In May 2010, the NEFMC in partnership with NOAA introduced new groundfish management regulations. In addition to placing new caps on the amount of all groundfish that can be caught, fishing vessels may now fish together in voluntary groups formed each year known as 'sectors.'
According to NOAA, sectors are 'given a portion of the total available groundfish catch based on the combined fishing history of their member vessels.' Sector vessels do not have to abide by the same gear and area restrictions as individual fisherman, but must stop fishing once the sector catches their allotment of fish.
The idea is to put more control into the hands of local fisherman in hopes that they will be better able to address stock depletion on a smaller scale.
Preliminary data shows Gulf of Maine stocks won't rebuild in time, which could shutdown fishing of Gulf of Maine cod
In 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service considered Gulf of Maine cod no longer overfished. According to a 2008 assessment, spawning stock biomass increased from 10,974 metric tons in 2005 to 33,877 metric tons in 2007, returning the stock to 58% of the target level.
Last week, new preliminary data showed that stocks will not meet their 2014 rebuilding deadline and that earlier estimates on the amount of spawning Gulf of Maine were nearly triple the actual amount.
Although the latest report still has to be reviewed, it has the potential end fishing of Gulf of Maine cod in order to protect the species.
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