Feds Close Most of Northeast to Cod Fishing

Cod caught by a french fishing vessel Pascal Rossignol / Reuters

Kiss that New England cod goodbye. At least for now.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has closed off most of the waters off the Northeast coast to cod fishing for the next six months, effective November 13. It's the largest closure of its kind for cod in history, and emblematic of the troubles for the fish, once so abundant it was thought to be a nearly inexhaustible resource.

The move threatens to put some fishermen out of business and makes life tougher for others who sometimes catch the species, which is used to make fish tacos, fish and chips, and cod liver oil.

Federal scientists say the move is necessary to prevent a further decline in the codfish population, which is 97 percent below what they consider a sustainable level. And the ban should help protect areas where the fish spawn, NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator John Bullard said in a statement.

But fishermen argue that the scientific measurements may not be detailed enough or properly fine-grained, and that there are enough codfish to safely catch in some areas; they also suggest that the regulations will disproportionately hurt small, independent fishermen as opposed to larger corporations.

The ruling applies to the entire Gulf of Maine, a huge area of water larger than the state of Maine itself, and cuts off all cod fishing in near-shore waters north of Provincetown, Massachusetts—a town on Cape Cod so-named for the formerly countless number of cod near its shores.

"It's going to have a huge impact on small fishing communities in [New England], and pretty much eliminates groundfishing as something to do as a commercial fishermen," says Ed Barrett, a fisher who used to be based in Marshfield, South Boston, but who now must travel half the year on the water chasing his piscine quarry. Groundfish are species like cod and haddock that live near the bottom, and which are usually caught using nets that drag along the seafloor.

Barrett, like other fishermen, questioned the scientific measurements, saying that in several areas, cod stocks have appeared healthy in recent years.

But Peter Baker, who directs ocean conservation work in the Northeast for the Pew Charitable Trusts, says the move didn't go far enough.

"While the measures they are taking now aren't going to solve the cod problem, they are better than nothing," he tells Newsweek. To solve the long-term problem of dwindling stocks, regulators need to permanently protect certain areas from trawling—pulling a net through the water along the ocean bottom—which damages vegetation on the seafloor that cod and other fish need to forage and breed, he says. Ideally, a long-term solution would involve having large swathes of permanently-protected areas where bottom-damaging equipment like trawls couldn't be used, he adds. Research has shown that undisturbed areas are home to larger fish, which are especially important for rebuilding cod populations since they are fertile and produce a disproportionate amount of offspring, he says.

Bullard said in a statement that to help offset the cod closure, the organization is allowing for an increase in catches of haddock, populations of which have increased recently.

Fishermen argue that the move is an overreach, due to the sheer size and complexity of the Gulf. Barrett, along with Brett Tolley, a community organizer with Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (a group that represents fishermen) say that one of the real reasons for recent depletion of stocks was a 2010 policy change that allowed for "catch share management." This made it possible for people to buy and sell fishing quotas, giving larger ships (and companies) the ability to catch much more than they previously could, Tolley says. Before, limits were much lower, he adds.

Both advocated for a policy closer to the one that existed before 2010, in which every ship, regardless of size, could only catch a modest amount of cod in a given time period.

The closure is likely to increase prices for domestically caught cod, and lead to increased imports from other countries like Iceland, where the fish is still abundant.