Can We (Will We) Save Gulf of Maine Cod?

A couple of weeks ago, the situation for New England’s iconic Atlantic cod went from bad to dismal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the new assessment for Gulf of Maine cod shows that the already depleted population has declined to a mere 3-4% of a sustainable abundance level [which is likely less than 2% of its un-fished abundance]. This is down from previous cod abundance estimates in 2011 of 12-18% of a sustainable level. Scientists say that surveys of cod show abundance is at an all-time low. And scientists found very few young cod, another bad sign1.

Cod have been struggling to recover since the 1990’s. And this new analysis indicates there is little hope for the recovery of cod anytime soon.

But this grim news really shouldn’t surprise us.  Scientists that worked on the 2011 cod assessment warned that the estimated abundance levels for cod may be too optimistic. Yet, instead of heeding the warning that cod could be on the verge of collapse, fishery managers continued to set catch limits above what cod could sustain in 2012. [Fishers have been catching Atlantic cod faster than they can reproduce for over thirty years now.] In 2013, managers substantially cut cod catch limits, but they were likely not cut enough given the poor state of the population.

So now what? Well, it’s time for fishermen, managers, and all New Englanders to stop debating the science and accept that we can no longer afford to keep catching cod. Fishermen have complained about the catch limit cuts for cod in recent years, but they haven’t even been able to catch their allotted limit [because the fish aren’t there]. The Gulf of Maine cod fishery should be closed, and managers should do everything they can to protect cod from further fishing mortality. Fishermen will need to figure out how to catch the abundant fish that are left in New England without catching cod. This may mean that fishermen will need to switch to more selective fishing gears, and avoid areas where the last remaining cod aggregate.

But just limiting fishing mortality on cod won’t be enough. Managers need to ensure that cod habitats are protected from destructive bottom fishing methods. Cod need safe places to grow, feed, and reproduce. Photographic evidence shows that protected habitats have bottoms with structural complexity that include kelp, mussel beds, sponges, and more. These areas offer better habitat conditions for fish compared to barren trawled habitats. Scientists have found that protected habitats areas contain more larger, older cod compared to un-protected areas. These larger cod are capable of producing more eggs than small fish, and thus are critical to helping depleted cod rebuild over time2. Scientists also say that protecting ocean habitats is the best way to protect fish from the stresses of global climate change.


Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.Photo Credit: NOAA

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary


Protecting important ocean habitats is part of a new approach to fisheries management, known as ecosystem-based fisheries management. Instead of just looking at the health of a single fish, ecosystem-based management takes into account how species interact with each other (e.g., predator-prey relationships) and how changes in the ocean environment can affect fish. It means looking at the whole picture. This type of management is desperately needed in New England, to help cod and other depleted fish recover3.

Unfortunately, at this very moment, the New England Fishery Management Council is preparing a proposal that will likely call for drastic cuts to New England’s current protected habitat areasthe exact opposite of what is needed. A proposal by the fishing industry that is currently under consideration would cut current protected habitat areas by 70%. Fishermen argue that the protected areas aren’t necessary and that they aren’t working (despite science that shows they are). Their real motive is that they want these areas re-opened to fishing so they have more opportunities to catch fish, to make up for the currently depleted state of open areas. They are putting short term economic interests over the health and future of New England’s fish and ecosystems.

Sadly, they don’t seem to realize that trawling over some of the last remaining structurally diverse habitats and removing fish safe-havens that have been in place for 20 years, is only going to make things worse for New England’s fish populations and fisheries.

I hope that New England fishery managers and fishermen will seriously re-think their proposal to cut drastic amounts of protected habitat areas. Because if we don’t provide cod with safe places to recover and start managing New England’s fisheries using a holistic approach, it is highly likely that Gulf of Maine cod will decline to a point where recovery is no longer possible. New England fishery managers and fishermen – do you really want to be responsible for that?



1.) Statement Regarding New Information Showing Continued Decline of Gulf of Maine Cod Stock

2.) The Role of Closed Areas on Cod Health

3.) Protecting New England’s Marine Ecosystem: Habitat at Risk

*Top photo is by NOAA


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at The Safina Center. 

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