Like diners, fishermen love cod. For centuries, the fish has been a symbol of Massachusetts and New England. Cod is “the king of all groundfish — people demand it,” declared Angela Sanfilippo, of the Massachusetts Fishing Partnership, in a Globe interview. But the fish itself is so depleted that fishermen last year could only muster 60 percent of their government-approved quota for Gulf of Maine cod. And there is no scientific evidence that the fish, especially the stocks closer to shore, are rebounding in a way that justifies a major relaxation of catch limits.
But that hasn’t stopped Attorney General Martha Coakley from joining the loud chorus of condemnation for federal fishing regulators by suing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Coakley contends that the dramatic cuts in allowable levels of Gulf of Maine cod fishing that took effect a month ago are a “death sentence” for the Massachusetts groundfish fleet, with federal regulators displaying a “callous disregard” for the impact on fishing families.
Coakley’s lament echoes that of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, which reflexively treats NOAA as a whipping post. Obviously, political leaders see little upside in defending the federal government, and they represent the interests of local fishermen, who feel greatly burdened by the federal limits. If Coakley’s suit prompts constructive discussions between the government and fishermen on transitioning from cod to the more abundant redfish, white hake, or pollock, it could be a helpful addition to the debate over fishing limits. But Coakley’s decision also has more destructive potential — both in unfairly reinforcing perceptions of the federal government as an enemy of fishermen and, if she is successful, in depleting the cod stock to the point where it all but ceases to exist.
Much of the suspicion of NOAA is well-earned, through overly zealous enforcement of fishing regulations, rules that created incentives to seize fishermen’s assets, and limits based on sketchy or outdated data. Predicting the growth of fish stocks is an inexact science, and mistakes have been made. But in the case of cod, in particular, there’s reason to believe it’s the industry, not the government, that’s in denial. Indeed, the new Northeast fisheries regional administrator, John Bullard, a former mayor of New Bedford who sympathizes with fishermen, stands by the limits announced earlier in the spring.
In fact, one day after Coakley filed suit, NOAA got sued from the environmental side of the debate, as the Conservation Law Foundation said the agency was still not doing enough to preserve cod stocks. No one wants to see a single fisherman go out of business. But if there are no fish, there is no business.