Atlantic cod on the verge of collapse

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The Atlantic codfish, once the most important fish in the waters of southeastern New England, is on the verge of collapse. Conservation measures that have restricted fishermen throughout the Northeast over the last three decades may have only delayed an inevitable long-term death march for the cod, scientists and fisheries managers say.

While fishermen continue to harvest cod, scientists report that cod stocks are so depleted on Georges Bank there may not be enough fish left to bring about recovery, unless drastic measures are taken to protect the female population.

The collapse of the cod fishery on Georges Bank comes on the heels of a similar collapse in Newfoundland, in Canadian waters to the north and in Northern Europe. Fisheries managers say Georges Bank may be the last known area in the North Atlantic where they can save the cod, and where commercial fishermen are still allowed to harvest.

“Cod for us is the poster child of everything wrong with fisheries management in New England,” declared Priscilla Brooks, director of the marine conservation program with the Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental advocacy organization that has closely monitored the New England fishery. She said cod stocks on Georges Bank at last count were at approximately 14 per cent of what is considered a healthy population.

A huge shoal larger than the state of Massachusetts, Georges Bank lies east and southeast of the Vineyard, extending for about 200 miles off the coast of south-eastern New England. The bank is a historically rich fishing ground for cod, haddock, herring, yellowtail flounder and sea scallops, among others.

Last spring a 187-foot National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel, Albatross IV, traversed Georges Bank and took samples from south of Noman’s Land to the eastern end of the Canadian-held portion of the bank. In more than 73 tows, scientists found few cod despite dramatic steps taken over the last two decades to curtail overfishing. Scientists aboard the Albatross found virtually no cod south of Martha’s Vineyard and south of Nantucket. They found some cod in the far eastern end of Georges Bank and in a small pocket just south of Chatham, in the Great South Channel. The trip ran from March 29 through April 7 and was part of a much broader sampling of ocean waters from New Jersey to the Gulf of Maine.

“Northern cod stocks around Newfoundland to the north have collapsed, and the big question is why?” said David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council. The council oversees the management of cod and most fish stocks in Georges Bank.

There is some good news. Haddock, a cousin to cod, is in the midst of what may be a significant recovery. On its trip the Albatross harvested and examined hundreds of pounds of juvenile haddock, anywhere from a few inches long to six inches in length.

Haddock is quickly becoming the fish of choice in the market. However, there is now rising pressure from fishermen to relax regulations so that draggers may again resume the harvest of groundfish in Georges Bank. Scientists say it would be a bad idea.

Mr. Pierce said the government has placed a moratorium on landings of cod in Newfoundland, and he said he has serious concerns about the future for codfish on Georges Bank. For 15 years the juvenile cod take has been below average, a sign that the stocks are fading.

“If we continue to get no young fish then we have a looming collapse. There are now fewer adults than there used to be. If we don’t see promising signs we could have looming collapse of codfish stocks,” Mr. Pierce said.

Statistics gathered from the trawl survey, together with landing data help scientists make an assessment of the status of any species of fish.