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December 1, 2004

Are the codfish coming back?

by Benjamin Neal

Maine lobstermen have been seeing many more codfish in their traps, and some fishermen out of Portland have reported finding so many cod that they can't stay away from them when fishing. Yet the federal government describes this stock of fish as depleted and overfished, and we have seen declining landings in some recent years, and some environmental groups are warning of possible crash or even extinction.

What's going on? Are the codfish, once king of the New England fishery and a mainstay of the economy, indeed recovering, are they staying stable but depleted, or are these important fish perhaps even declining further in their abundance?

The Great Codfish

Cod are found from New York, around the top of the North Atlantic to the British Isles, although recent scientific work has shown that they are divided into separate groups within this range. They can reach lengths of over four feet, and top weights of sixty pounds, although such fish are extremely rare today. They are voracious omnivores, feeding on a wide variety of prey, and taking a variety of baits, and are caught today not just by hook, but by gillnet and trawl as well.

Codfish were really the reason for the settlement of New England, and thus for the inception of the United States. While this is perhaps an oversimplification, this species does occupy a key niche in the history, economy, and mythology of our part of the new world. Indeed one of the first permanent settlements along the Maine coast, by Capt. John Smith on Monhegan in May 1614, was established primarily for the excellent groundfishing around the island. A five-foot long wooden cod hangs in the Massachusetts State House, and families from Boston to Eastport have long subsisted on Friday meals of the white, flaky fish. Recently, however, the fortunes of this once dominant animal have taken a turn for the worse.

The Federal Numbers

Cod along the New England coast are divided into two administrative groups, named the Gulf of Maine stock and the Georges Bank stock. The former is of greatest interest to Maine boats and fishermen, as only larger vessels generally can make the more than 80-mile trip from Maine ports to Georges Bank. The Gulf of Maine cod stock once supported hundreds of small gillnetters, draggers and recreational charter boats along the entire coast, providing many fishermen an alternative source of income to supplement lobstering.

The Gulf of Maine cod stock is monitored and managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, with its own complex suite of management measures such as trip weight limits, species limits, days-at-sea restrictions, as well as an accompanying, somewhat dizzying array of scientific figures including estimated numbers of fish, their spawning status, their rates of exploitation and more. Federal government regulators and fisheries scientists regularly utilize a number of data sources to determine these figures, including commercial and recreational landings reports, a government-conducted ongoing research trawl survey, at-sea data collected by observers on commercial boats, biological indicators like weight and age of the fish, and even high-tech methods like sonar sampling.

Gulf of Maine cod was designated in 2002 (the latest year for which a summary document is available) by the National Marine Fisheries Service as both overfished and as experiencing overfishing. According to the GARM (Groundfish Assessment Review Meeting) report issued by the NEFSC (Northeast Fisheries Science Center), published in 2002, Gulf of Maine cod has a yearly mortality rate from fishing of 47 percent of adults, and a total biomass of spawning fish of 22,000 metric tons. Comparing these figures to the stated desired mortality rate of 22.5 percent and a hoped-for breeding biomass of 82,830 metric tons shows why the stock has been thus designated.

These figures may sound like some kind of medical report, one that is usually followed by the question "OK, what does it mean, doc?" In this case it means that around half of all breeding fish in the population are removed each year, and that the population itself swimming around out in the Gulf of Maine is somewhere around one-quarter of where the government thinks it should be. It could also be noted that the target level is lower than the historical level, and so, in short, there is currently probably somewhere between about one percent and ten percent of the fish that were present when John Smith thought this was a good place to set up shop nearly 400 years ago.

Not surprisingly, the actual cod catch has in recent years shown this decline as well. The fishery peaked in 1991, a late date many observers find surprising. In that year 17,800 metric tons of cod were taken from this area, a figure which has declined to an average of 3,269 for the years 1999-2001, falling to an all time low of 1,636 metric tons in 1999. For comparison, the National Marine Fisheries Service has calculated that if the stock were fully rebuilt, it could support annual landings of 16,600 metric tons. Long-term averages for the fishery are around 8,000-9,000 metric tons. Stocks of young fish, which have an obvious effect on the numbers of adult fish, have looked poor for eight years, with the 1998 and 1999 year classes being stronger than average, and the 2000 year class being notably weaker, with a class of less than one million fish compared to a class of nine to ten million fish entering the fishery in 1998. Cod become catchable at around four years of age.

Maine has also taken an interest in the declining coastal groundfishery. Six years ago an annual three-month spring spawning closure was put in place to assist recovery, a measure believed to be the largest closure of any state waters at the time. Most fishermen welcomed this measure, as the fishery within three miles (the area of state jurisdiction) was pretty well depleted already. Spawning recovery in this area has been slow, but the state continues a twice-yearly trawl survey monitoring program to detect recovery of these fish. "The closure was put in place to assist the populations of all coastal groundfish, not just cod, such as flounders," notes Linda Mercer, Director of the Bureau of Resource Management of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "We continue to watch for recovery in all these species."

The fishermen's view

Fishermen along the coast of Maine have been reporting increasing numbers of small fish showing up in their lobster traps. It is generally felt that this is an indication that the population is making a recovery in the inshore areas.

In southern Maine in particular fishermen seem to agree that there are more codfish, and even more fish of a size that can be caught. Craig Pendleton, a Saco resident and an owner of a vessel fishing out of Portland, thinks that the nearshore codfish components in this region are showing positive signs. Pendleton is also very involved in the public debate of fisheries issues, as the Coordinating Director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA,, a group dedicated to restoring and enhancing the Northwest Atlantic's marine diversity and abundance, while also working towards developing community-based, self-organizing and self-governing fisheries institutions. "From the New Hampshire border to about Phippsburg I have heard of fishermen making one 15 minute tow and getting their limit," he says. "The federal trawl survey does not sample inshore areas well, and could be missing the signal of the recovery."

Inshore gillnet fisherman Dale Martel of Saco agrees that the federal trawl survey does not accurately reflect the recent increase in numbers. "They don't fish their gear the same way we do, and they don't see what we see, that the fish are without question coming back." He says he feels definitely optimistic, and that things are coming back from a low point in the 1960s. In the spring, he says, "we have trouble staying away from the cod enough to stay under our [800-pound daily] limit, and we are seeing much bigger, nice market size cod."

Hank Soule, General Manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, says, "We are currently very happy with the recovery, and now just need to stay the course with the new regulations and give them time to work." He feels that this increase will only gather steam in the next few years, and notes that the current designation of "overfished" does not mean that a recovery is not taking place. About 90 percent of the groundfish landed in Maine crosses the floor of the Exchange.

In Stonington, further east along the coast, the picture is different. Once home to almost 20 gillnet boats, the fleet began eroding away about ten years ago, and there is currently only one active groundfish boat in the town. The depletion of fish has been more complete here, with fewer signs of a recovery of cod. Rick Bubar, Past President of the Maine Gillnetters' Association, gave up catching groundfish in favor of lobstering about six years ago, and does not feel that the current level of cod and other finfish species is enough to bring him back to netting. However, he says, "I have seen more codfish this year than I ever remember, right from the deep water to the shoal water, along with increasing numbers of other fish as well, like hake and redfish."

Stonington resident Bobby Jones is a little more optimistic, and is planning to reenter the summer fishery part time next year. He thinks there might be some fish on some of the old grounds where the day boat fishery used to work, some 20 to 30 miles offshore, and plans to take a look in between lobstering next year. He points out that "no one is going up here, because of the lobstering, the small trip limits, and the loss of licenses, and without any fishing effort it is impossible to say if there are fish out there or not -- I would like to think that they are out there."

On the way up?

The Federal stock assessments show little to be encouraged about, drawing in detail a picture of a reduced body of fish, with poor reproduction and still under significant fishing pressure. Still, there are a few bright spots for Gulf of Maine cod. The numbers reveal that the decline in population has been slowed or stopped. Other species managed under similar measures, such as haddock on Georges Bank, have shown recent recoveries. It is possible that nearshore fish are increasing, and the reports of increasing numbers of smaller fish are widespread enough along the coast and among various fishermen to be undeniable.

This recovery of young fish in the inshore area could be a harbinger of a general recovery, even if there's no scientific evidence to date documenting a significant increase. It is a long road from the current harvest level of around 4,000 metric tons in this area to the estimated long-term potential harvest level of around 16,000 metric tons, and a considerable amount of forebearance will have to be shown for many years to keep the recovery on track -- not something that the fishing industry has been notable for in the past.

In short, the response to the question "are cod coming back along the Maine coast?" must be: "Yes, but so slowly today as to not justify increases in fishing effort or a reduction in vigilance for a significant time."

It is a recovery that could still be derailed, and in addition the recovery seems mainly limited to the area west of Boothbay.

There is another worrying social trend: if the predicted recovery should occur, access to the fish by Maine residents would be greatly reduced due the lack of licenses currently held by residents in this area. Most of the Maine licenses have been sold or just let go, and a widespread recovery of these licenses by local fishermen at today's license exchange prices would be cost-prohibitive. Some groups have suggested that this is a good time to ask for greater local control of fishing effort along the Maine coast. Moves like this have been opposed in the past, but as the stock recovers slowly, perhaps an alternative regulatory framework could help ensure that the depredation does not happen again.

click to enlargeThe author hold a small Gulf of Maine cod
The author hold a small Gulf of Maine cod Staff Photo

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