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EDITORIAL

Dwindling cod population in Mass. is no fluke

Fisherman Sam Lee  hoists a cod from the water in Newfoundland while working with a team of Marine Biological Technician from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who were tagging the fish.
Fisherman Sam Lee hoists a cod from the water in Newfoundland while working with a team of Marine Biological Technician from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who were tagging the fish.The Boston Globe

A wooden carving known as the “sacred cod” has hung in the Massachusetts State House for centuries, a testament to the historic fishing industry — and its unnatural hold on the state’s political class.

Over the years, a who’s who of Democrats and Republicans have joined fishermen in raising dubious concerns about the science behind the federal government’s reports of a collapsing cod population in the Gulf of Maine. Governor Charlie Baker has been among the doubters. And last year, he commissioned his own survey of the waters off New England, designed to address some of the industry’s criticisms of the federal research.

But as the Globe’s David Abel reported this week, state scientists are reaching the same disheartening conclusion as their federal counterparts: The region’s cod population is at historic lows, down about 80 percent from just a decade ago.

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The Baker administration says there are years of work to be done before the survey is complete. And by all means, that work should continue. But at some point, the state’s elected officials need to acknowledge reality and accept the federal government’s sharp limits on cod fishing.

Changing positions can be hard for politicians, particularly when the loyalty of a precious voting bloc is at stake. But the truth is, their denialist posture is a bit of a facade anyhow.

The Baker administration and local officials up and down the Massachusetts coast aren’t blind to what’s happening in the Gulf of Maine. In fact, they’ve been working for years to diversify the state’s maritime economy.

That means promoting redfish and other lesser-known species abundant in local waters. It also means branching out into new industries. New Bedford is trying to position itself as a staging area for offshore wind energy. And Gloucester is working to become more of a tourist destination, with a new hotel on the waterfront and new restaurants.

Carolyn Kirk, a former Gloucester mayor now guiding coastal development efforts in the Baker administration, talks of boosting the state’s marine technology sector with an eye toward a robust “Internet of things” on the water — with more and better devices collecting fine-tuned data on climate change and fish movements.

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These are promising ideas. But as long as state and local officials insist on waging a losing battle against the science of counting fish, they cannot give those ideas the full attention they deserve. Cod is an important part of Massachusetts’ heritage. But it is not sacred.

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