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I’ll have the cod, please

A large cod catch is unloaded in South Boston.

Dina Rudick/ Globe staff

A large cod catch unloaded in South Boston.

If you care about the future of wild fish stocks and fishing families, there is an easy way to protect both when you shop or eat out: Buy New England-caught cod, flounder, haddock and other groundfish. That’s because after decades of decline, these iconic fish — the backbone of a centuries-old industry — are now being managed sustainably under a two-year-old program called catch shares.

It may seem like being a conscientious seafood lover is a no-win proposition these days, with fishermen on one side and well-intentioned retailers and conservation advocates on the other. Consumers rightfully want their purchases to reflect their beliefs. But at the same time, turning your back on responsibly caught, local fish can be an unintended blow to fishing communities up and down the New England coast.

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For years, Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Seafood Selector — along with similar guides from other conservation organizations — recommended avoiding some of the most popular fish caught in US waters, including New England. Atlantic cod and haddock, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and grouper, and Pacific rockfish were once categorized as unsustainable choices, largely because of unworkable fishing regulations that had devastating impacts on fish and fishermen alike. Red snapper populations crashed in the northern Gulf of Mexico, and the major Pacific rockfish fishery was declared a federal disaster by the Secretary of Commerce in 2000. The New England groundfishery has been rocked by crisis after crisis for decades.

These fisheries were subjected to an ever-changing set of rules attempting to limit how much fishermen could catch by restricting their time at sea, where they could fish at different times of year, and setting use-it-or-lose-it trip limits on key fish stocks. This was all in an attempt to keep stocks at stable levels, but perversely led to increasing waste of perfectly marketable fish and escalating uncertainty about what was really happening at sea. Hemmed in by ever-shortening seasons, fishermen in these fisheries had no choice but to venture out in bad weather and fish even when they knew they would haul up fish that was out-of-season or undersized. Fishing laws of the time required fishermen to shovel those fish back overboard even though most were already dead. The result was a downward spiral for the fish and the fishermen.

Today the outlook is much better, and US fisheries managed under catch shares deserve a second chance when it comes to seafood ratings. In short, catch shares provide each fisherman with secure access to a portion of the total annual harvest of fish, allowing them to plan their fishing over the entire year. Two things happen under this new approach: uncertainty goes down, and stewardship grows. Fishermen and managers find they have new tools to conserve fish stocks, and the evidence is compelling. A recent study of fisheries in the United States and British Columbia published in the journal Marine Policy looked at fisheries before and after they adopted catch shares. Since the implementation of catch shares, fishermen on average are earning significantly more, fisheries are stabilizing, and safety has dramatically improved. For example, in 2010 alone, catch shares in three fisheries in the Pacific, New England and Gulf of Mexico saved enough fish from being tossed back dead to feed an estimated one million Americans for a year.

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But fish populations by their nature face ups and downs. You have probably heard that cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine appear to be lower than previously thought, and consequently, fishery managers have cut the amount that fishermen can harvest. So why would EDF advise that it is OK to buy locally caught cod now? Because the sector management program provides the greatest assurance that cod stocks will stabilize and ultimately recover. The cuts are necessary to rebuild the fishery but they are taking a toll on fishermen. Consumers can and should help.

You can do the right thing by purchasing New England cod. The fish is being carefully managed and local fishing families need your business now more than ever.

Johanna Thomas is the director of New England and Pacific Regions for EDF’s Oceans Program. Emilie Litsinger is the New England Fisheries project manager for EDF.

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