For years, Scituate fishermen have braved icy seas looking for cod, but since December, they have been throwing some of the fish back in.
With the help of The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, fishermen and scientists have started tagging cod, inserting $300 trackers into 130 fish to better understand and protect their spawning.
“It’s like E-ZPass,” Chris McGuire, a marine program director with the conservancy, said in a phone interview. “. . . The tags that are inserted in fish are like the things you have on your windshield. We put 38 receivers under water. Any time a tagged fish swims in range of a receiver, it records that information.”
The goal is to more accurately locate spawning cod habitats to institute small-scale fishing bans. The restrictions are aimed at protecting spawning cod — the bread and butter for local fishermen — while allowing the overall industry to continue.
Several Scituate fishermen have helped spearhead the program. Though unusual for fishermen to seek fishing restrictions, McGuire said that’s the goal.
“You get to a tipping point,” McGuire said. “People recognize they need to be protected from themselves. You have these guys who have been fishing out of Scituate for decades, have seen the population go up and down. But recently they are concerned that they and other fishermen are fishing too hard at this time of year when the cod are all gathered together for reproducing. If that’s interrupted, there is no future of cod fishing on the South Shore coast. It’s a short-term cost for a long-term gain.”
The $150,000 project is a partnership with the conservancy, the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, the Division of Marine Fisheries, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
Optimism abounded last week during a press event attended by representatives from each group.
Frank Mirarchi of Scituate said the project will help fine tune fishery management where other programs have failed. “For the first time in my recollection, we’re in danger of losing the fisheries,” he said.
A fisherman since 1961, Mirarchi said quota limits, trip limits, size limits, and wide-scale closures have done little to protect the dwindling cod population. Recent changes in regulations have only made things worse, he said.
The project gives small fishing companies a chance to exert influence in a regulatory field largely dominated by larger fishing groups, said fisherman Stephen Welch. The opportunity for change motivated Scituate’s Kevin Norton to volunteer his boat to bring scientists to cod-spawning locations. Without change, he predicted, the fishing industry would be extinct in Scituate in two to three years.
The project is still in the beginning stages. Receivers were put in the water midway through mating season. About 130 fish have been tagged, and another 20 are planned in a subsequent trip.
Scientists have already started collecting the transmitted data, and will go at the end of spawning season in late January to collect information again. Then, data will be reviewed and a plan put in place to study cod locations next spawning season.
“Next year is when we’ll reap the benefits of this work,” said Bill Hoffman, an aquatic biologist from the Division of Marine Fisheries.
Visit www.boston.com/scituate to see photos of cod being tagged and released into the Atlantic.