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As codfish dwindle, communities need to reboot

Fishing boats pull in front of the fisherman’s statue at Gloucester Harbor in 2002 for a protest of restrictive fishing regulations.file 2002/boston globe

With codfish at their lowest level in history, it is hard to give credence to fishermen and political leaders who believe New England’s iconic catch would be just fine if only nosy researchers and regulators would get out of the way.

The New England Fishery Management Council has recommended emergency regulations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the remainder of the 2014 fishing year and is considering more permanent measures that could cut the cod catch down to 1 percent of what it was two decades ago — or cut out codfishing altogether. The reaction, predictably, has been fierce as NOAA is expected to respond by next month.

In the Globe, the Gloucester Daily Times, and the Cape Cod Times, fishermen are again protesting that they will lose everything, with one calling further restrictions “premeditated murder” of inshore fleets. Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk has retreated to the decades-old default political stance of calling the science “questionable,” declaring in a letter, “we cannot have any more direct hits on the Gloucester fishing community.” This is after the region this spring received $32.8 million in federal disaster relief from prior restrictions. In Massachusetts, which received $14.5 million of the funds, then-Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rick Sullivan said, “We must protect the sustainability of our fishermen, and this financial assistance will help our fishing industry survive until the resource recovers and federal harvest regulations can be relaxed.”

The Globe editorial page in the past has consistently supported such aid in hopes the industry would use the money to focus on sustainable marine enterprises. But the reflexive insistence on the status quo is untenable when the worst hit of all is coming, with no telling if cod will recover and when limits on the harvest can be relaxed. For instance, Newfoundland shut down its cod fishery in 1992, costing 30,000 jobs. There have been signs of recovery in the last couple of years, but the codfish population is still 90 percent below levels of the 1980s, a far distance from commercial viability. If that is any guide, Gulf of Maine cod may not be a marquee fish again until the 2030s. From a catch of 21,000 metric tons in 1992, proposals are now being discussed to limit the catch to as little as 200 metric tons.


It is clearly time for a new model that shelves the insular response to new quotas and instead draws on lessons from all over the nation. The cod industry has become analogous to a wheezing factory about to be shuttered or an exhausted mining operation facing closure. The cities that have best planned around the declines of historic industries have had the most impressive rebounds.


Prime examples can be found in the Midwest and the Rust Belt. Pittsburgh has come a long way back from the era of Big Steel with a focus on health care and technology. Minneapolis-St. Paul, once the flour mill capital of the world, now has the fifth-highest number of Fortune 500 companies in the nation. Milwaukee is recovering from a long slumber with precision manufacturing, financial services, a renowned art museum, and a slate of summer festivals that attract tourists from all over the Midwest.

To be sure, key fishing towns such as Gloucester, under Kirk’s leadership, have made several strides to redevelop the waterfront, diversify into marine sciences and find new markets for available fish. This summer she traveled to Japan to explore markets there for underutilized New England species such as dogfish and monkfish and advances in fish farming operations to build here. And even as some in the fishing world continue to decry scientific findings, many forward-thinking fishermen are bringing other sustainable species to port, such as white hake, Acadian redfish, and haddock.


Fishermen are also trying, with the aid of gear innovators, to come up with new nets and techniques to catch legal fish without scooping up cod or other fish that have strict limits. Andrew Pershing, chief scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said in an interview, “The trick is to take fish like hake and pollock and get people to look at them like craft beer, so you can sell them locally and get a premium.”

But a full-scale effort to retool requires a complete attitude change. That won’t happen if civic leaders and prominent voices among fishermen cling desperately to the idea that, if not for meddling outsiders, the industry can continue along as it always has. It’s true that scientists occasionally misjudge catch limits. But the overall downward trend in cod and other species is unmistakable, and coastal communities can help themselves by adapting sooner rather than later.

For 20 years, fishermen have relied on vote-counting politicians to enable them to avoid the inevitable by begging Washington for disaster relief and congressional earmarks, which currently total $116.6 million. With one of New England’s most precious resources in critical decline, it’s time to break this cycle of denial and dependence and find new solutions for sustainability.