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article imageNew England's cod population in dire straits

By Karen Graham     Aug 9, 2014 in Environment
It has been bad news for the Atlantic cod fish for the past several years, and now it has just gotten worse. A recently released survey of the Gulf of Maine cod population by NOAA shows their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate.
Underwater surveys conducted by NOAA estimates the species has decreased to about three percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population. This is down from 13 to 18 percent found in the last assessment done in 2011.
The reduction in numbers resulted in a reduced allowable catch, and in 2012, the Commerce Department declared the cod fishery a disaster, opening the way for $33 million in federal aid to be given to New England fisherman. Even though fisherman and fishery managers have grudgingly gone along with bringing in reduced catches, the damage has been done.
Total harvest of Atlantic cod 1950-2012.
Total harvest of Atlantic cod 1950-2012.
Data provided by FAO
Russell Brown, deputy science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the branch of NOAA that did the research. expressed deep concern, saying "it is pretty dire." He said this latest survey found very few young fish, an indication of paltry spawning rates. Brown says the numbers of cod are at an all time low.
“We’re deeply concerned about the fish stocks, and we’re also deeply concerned about the fishermen and communities that depend on the stock,” Brown said. “I think our findings would lead to recommendations that we need to be very careful about subjecting the stock to any additional fishing mortality.”
Many fishermen have cast doubts on the new survey data, even though Brown has recommended that New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in the region, appoint a group of independent scientists to review the survey data before its released to the public.
“My number one concern is that it doesn’t match with what we’re seeing on the water,” said Terry Alexander, a council member and a fisherman from Harpswell, Maine, who has caught cod for nearly 40 years. Alexander argues the data may be accurate based only on the low fishing quotas. “I’m going to look at this all with a cautious eye. The implications could be huge," he said.
1992 closing of cod fishery on The Outer Banks off coast of Newfoundland
In 1992, Canada closed the cod fishery on the Outer Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, and it has never been reopened. Dr. George Rose, head of the Fisheries Conservation Group at Memorial University in Newfoundland says what is happening with New England fisheries is similar to what was experienced in Newfoundland.
Rose says they saw “extreme contraction” of the areas in which cod could be found. The cod clumped together, and “made one last stand.” Fisheries in New England are also seeing this clumping of the cod, and this explains why fishermen can get full loads of fish when they are over the mass of fish. “Fishing catch rates depend on aggregation,” explains Rose, “they don’t depend on overall biomass.”
The northwest Atlantic fishery abruptly collapsed in 1992  following overfishing since the late 1950...
The northwest Atlantic fishery abruptly collapsed in 1992, following overfishing since the late 1950s, and an earlier partial collapse in the 1970s.
Lamiot - Own work
In other words, for fishermen, in doesn't matter how many fish there are in total, just how many are under the boat. Rose says Canadian fishermen registered some of their biggest catches just before the collapse. “The decline [in Newfoundland] was so rapid that it really took everybody off-guard,” Rose says, “and even all these years later, we really don’t have a perfect explanation for it.”
Long-term prognosis for Atlantic cod is still questionable
Cod have been an important economic commodity internationally since around 800 A.D
Norwegians brought dried cod to Southern Europe centuries ago, and cod are still an important commodity for them. The Portuguese fished for cod in the 15th century, and the Basques are said to have discovered the Canadian fishing banks long before Columbus set out looking for India.
The development of North America's East Coast was due in part to cod the fisheries and their abundance. Cod was so important to the development of the state of Massachusetts, that in the state's House of Representatives there hung a carved wooden codfish, known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts. Today, a third representation of the Sacred Cod still hangs in the House chambers.
Rose says that if you remove fishing of cod from the equation, other effects all along the food-chain, from plankton on up, become that much more important. Now, it's not just fishing pressure we have to worry about, but climate change has started to play a role in the overall picture. One noticeable difference is the rising water temperatures.
The cod are moving further north in search of the colder water they need. Spawning grounds are becoming too warm for young cod, and there has been documented changes in the zooplankton, tiny floating animals young cod need for growth. Some scientists say this may be an explanation for the slow come-back, despite reduced fishing. While cod populations have bounced back at different times through the years, the population has never been this low.
More about Atlantic cod, NOAA, gulf of maine, spawning rates, economic consequences
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