Cod has a long, complex history. If you don’t believe me, read Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful micro-history, appropriately titled Cod. There are so many voices shouting over each other that it’s hard to pull out the relevant facts. There are so many factors involved other than just fishing.
Recent headlines in the Boston Globe, Gulf of Maine fishermen face 6-month cod ban and Baker questions federal findings on fishing limits: Voices support for fishermen, may as well be titled ‘Fishermen v. Scientists: A fight for survival.’ In the latest chapter of cod’s complicated history, fishermen fight to keep their livelihoods while scientists make decisions on behalf of an ecosystem in a downward spiral. Regrettably for the fishing industry and anyone with a vested interest in New England’s seafood system, there’s a divide over fishing regulations.
So if the goals of fishermen, scientists, and regulators are similar, why all the tension?
Shifting baselines are shifts in where and when we start measuring change in our ecosystems. In my last blog post, I presented two different baselines for the cod fishery. The first was the 1861 catch from Frenchman’s Bay, in Hancock County, Maine (68,000 metric tons). The second was the catch in 1982 (22,000 metric tons), the first year of NOAA stock assessments. Sure, 22,000 metric tons seems like a lot of fish, but when you start measuring in 1861, it looks a lot different.
Unfortunately, we’re not using the right baselines. Governor-elect Baker was recently “struck by the dynamic in which the federal government says there are no fish and then fishermen go out and fish for a few hours and catch 10,000 pounds or 5,000 pounds.” Based on the 1861 Frenchman’s Bay catch, 10,000 lbs of cod (4.5 metric tons) in a few hours is analogous to saying there are no fish left, especially if Massachusetts fishermen are the only ones doing the catching. A few sizable hauls in small pockets of the ocean does not represent a healthy fishery.
Shifting baselines is not a new phenomenon. But it’s one that is amplified in New England because of the severity of the situation. It’s hard to give up something as iconic to New England as cod. Cod fishing has been so poor of late, especially in an historical context, that some have shifted their baselines in order to stay optimistic. If cod disappear for good, there doesn’t seem to be a backup plan. It’s much easier to say that it hasn’t disappeared.
I sincerely hope that cod return to New England; that future generations don’t have to ask where Cape Cod got its name. I also hope that we learn from our mistakes. While I have been advocating eating underloved species like skate and sea robin, we need to be careful. We can’t fish down the food chain as we have done with so many other species. We can’t focus on a single species, as we did with cod. The ocean is full of diversity; our seafood system should be as well.
One final thought
NOAA recently declared many US fisheries “rebuilt” and that we have ended chronic overfishing. Seafood Watch recently upgraded the sustainability ratings of several major fisheries. However, given what we know about shifting baselines, can we be sure that these fisheries are in fact rebuilt and ready to be fished? Nobody seems to be questioning the science behind rebuilt fisheries. Is this because the fisheries are in fact healthy, or because it’s what people want to hear?