As recently as 2008, Maine groundfishermen were feeling fairly optimistic. That year, scientists announced that the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks, which had been close to collapse in the mid-1990s, were on the rebound after years of rebuilding. Fishermen were understandably buoyed by the assessment.
"People took that to heart; they made plans expecting higher landings," says Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a non-profit communications organization for the seafood industry. "Boats made plans, the industry made plans, the auction houses were all geared up."So imagine everyone's surprise and dismay when a subsequent survey (such assessments are performed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Fisheries Service every few years) revealed that the 2008 projections had been off the mark. The stocks, it seemed, were no healthier than they had been. Fishermen were still having a hard time finding cod in the sea.
"They realized that, in fact, they had been wrong," says Jonathan Labaree, director of community initiatives at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. "It's difficult to know, frankly, exactly why they were wrong. It seems as though they overestimated the amount of fish out there because they didn't really take into account all the information."
According to a NOAA presentation at the end of January, the 2008 study was skewed because it didn't properly account for the weight of the sexually mature fish in the stock, the health and size of young fish in the stock, and the number of fish dying due to fishing activities.
The revised 2011 NOAA assessment presented a much more dire picture. Cod stocks were in poor condition, rebuilding much more slowly than expected, and vulnerable to further depletion. Thus, at the end of last month, the New England Fishery Management Council — which establishes rules for small- and large-scale commercial fisheries between three to 200 miles off the coast of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut — cut the fishing quotas, significantly.
Fishermen's allocation for Gulf of Maine cod was slashed 77 percent; for Georges Bank cod, the catch-limit cut was only slightly less painful at 61 percent (quotas for yellowtail flounder and haddock were also reduced). On top of existing restrictions, these new limitations represent a serious constraint.
"[M]any Council members expressed their awareness about the serious negative economic impacts that will undoubtedly occur and affect the small inshore boat fleet in New England most significantly," a NEFMC release read. "Many fishermen in this group have been historically dependent on cod and have already seen the impacts of decreased catches."
Meanwhile, environmental interests like the Conservation Law Foundation are calling for the NEFMC to shut down the cod fishery altogether to give the species a legitimate chance to rebuild.
It is not a great time to be a groundfisherman in Maine.
HEADED TO OBLIVION
There was a time when cod and other groundfish (such as halibut, flounder, and haddock) were the lifeblood of New England's working waterfronts. From salt cod to frozen fish sticks, groundfish has been incorporated as a staple in American diets for centuries. McDonald's has used various species of groundfish in its Filets-o-Fish for decades; Alexandre Dumas once wrote that it would be feasible to walk across the Atlantic "on the backs of cod."