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Twilight of the Cod

The sea was thick with them once; they practically jumped into your boat. Since the time of Columbus we've finished for cod--and now, from Cape Code to Newfoundland, they are fished out.

By Robert Kunzig
Apr 1, 1995 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:55 AM


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In the massachusetts statehouse, high above the gallery in the house of representatives, directly opposite the painting of John Hancock proposing the Bill of Rights, there hangs a five-foot-long wooden codfish. It is painted gold with scarlet gills, and it has been there for exactly a century--ever since it was moved from the old House chamber, where it had hung for a century before that. The transfer of the Sacred Cod on March 7, 1895, was an occasion for pomp and soaring oratory. A committee of 15 legislators was appointed to fetch the fish. Two by two, they followed the sergeant at arms into the old chamber, watched as the cod was lowered onto a bier draped with the American flag, and then marched behind the four pages who carried it into the new hall. There the cod and its entourage were greeted with a deep bow by the senator from Gloucester, the state’s preeminent fishing port. The rest of the assembly rose to their feet and applauded the fish vigorously. Everybody who could make a pretext for touching its fins or for holding it straight on the stretcher did so, the Boston Daily Globe reported the next day. The triumph of the codfish was front-page news in both the Globe and the Boston Herald; each devoted nearly half a broadsheet to the event.

The early 1890s were good years for cod fishing in Massachusetts, and in particular for Gloucester. At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Gloucester mounted an elaborate exhibit, featuring a scale model of its thriving waterfront. That same year the Portuguese immigrants to that waterfront finished building themselves a church, Our Lady of Good Voyage, and topped it with a gaily painted statue: Madonna with Schooner. Rudyard Kipling was holed up in Brattleboro, Vermont, in the 1890s, writing Captains Courageous, his paean to the Gloucestermen who went down to the sea in schooners and dories. Sailing on the rich offshore banks, from Georges Bank off Cape Cod to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland; staying at sea for months; fishing with hook and line from small boats tossed on large waves, those men sustained an industry whose reach was global. In 1895, fishermen caught 60,000 tons of cod in the waters off New England. In May of that year, two months after the shifting of the Sacred Cod, one man landed the Patriarch Cod--a six-foot-long, 2111Ž2-pound fish. Its likes have never been seen again. Cod do not live that long these days.

Fishing has changed a lot in the last century. On a bleak, sleety morning last November, a few dozen descendants of the captains courageous gathered 15 miles inland from Gloucester, and about as far from Kipling’s Gloucester as it is possible to get. They came, in their flannel shirts and jeans and baseball caps, to a Holiday Inn set in the strip-mall ugliness of Route 1 in Peabody. They sat, in a pink, drop-ceilinged ballroom, under a reflecting disco ball, and listened to their fate being discussed by men in suits--the Groundfish Committee of the New England Fishery Management Council. They watched, more or less mutely, a computer-model presentation of the options open to this committee. The presentation was opaque even to scientists in the audience, and the committee’s discussion was lackluster and at times nonexistent. But it mattered little: everyone knew that the options were all but nonexistent, too. A month earlier the council had decided that fishing for cod on Georges Bank--as well as for haddock and yellowtail flounder, the two other important bottom-dwelling fish--must essentially be stopped. The committee’s task was to work out the details.

That such a long and fruitful history should meet so wretched an end: on that happy afternoon a century ago in the statehouse it could not have seemed possible. This sedate and solitary fish, Congressman James Gallivan of Boston had told the assembly, speaking of the wooden one, ...commemorates democracy. It celebrates the rise of free institutions. It emphasizes progress. It epitomizes Massachusetts. This was not just posturing. Endless resources, free for the taking, are what made America possible, and it started with cod. Cod spurred the settlement of the New World. They were its first industry and export. They fed the Pilgrims. And now, after 500 years, from Georges Bank right up to the Grand, they are all but gone.

Atlantic cod, gadus morhua, have been around a lot longer than we have, probably more than 10 million years. Cod survived even the ice ages, presumably by moving south. Today they live from the Barents Sea north of Norway down the European coast as far south as the Bay of Biscay, and from northern Labrador and Greenland down the American coast as far as Cape Hatteras. As far as biologists can tell, the cod that live today on opposite sides of the Atlantic and even at different points along the North American coast form distinct stocks, or populations. But they are still in occasional touch with one another and still belong to the same species. In 1961, for instance, a fish that had been tagged by British researchers in the North Sea four years earlier was caught off Newfoundland, after a journey of more than 2,000 miles.

Cod live in coastal waters, a thousand feet deep or less, because that is where they find food: small animals that feed on the single-celled plants called phytoplankton. Phytoplankton have to float near the surface to capture sunlight, but their nutrients come mostly from seafloor sediments. In shallow water, tides and currents can readily stir nutrients up to the surface. This is especially true of the shallow offshore banks that run along the Atlantic coast from New England to Newfoundland. Since the last ice age, they have been an archipelago of productivity, in particular of cod.

The banks themselves were created during some earlier glaciation, when is not clear. At that distant sometime, between 5 million and a hundred thousand years ago, sea level was much lower than it is today--the water was stacked up in continental ice sheets. The continental shelf that is now submerged was then a flat coastal plain dipping gently toward the sea. Many rivers meandered over this plain, and over the millennia their wandering channels dug a series of basins into it. Along the ancient coast, the rivers left a chain of low hills, steep on the inland side and gently dipping toward the sea, and punctured by just a few large estuaries. In the last ice age, glaciers surged right up to the edge of the hills and dug the basins even deeper. When the ice sheets finally melted and the sea level rose, the basins were flooded and the hills became submerged offshore banks. The Gulf of Maine is one such basin; Georges Bank, at the mouth of the Gulf of Maine, is one such bank. The banks are often only a few tens of feet deep at their crests and never more than a few hundred. They are covered with sand and gravel dumped by the glaciers.

Cod are groundfish--bottom dwellers--and have the mottled coloring of sand or gravel. In other ways too they are not the stuff of poetry. They are large, typically two to three feet long and eight pounds or so at maturity, but not exceptionally large; strong swimmers, with their powerful tail fin, but not exceptional ones; agile swimmers, thanks to fins on the back and belly that act like rudders, and ones on the sides that act like horizontal thrusters--but again, not exceptional. When you look at a cod in a tank, and it looks back with its big round eyes, you think: fish. Cod are a kind of essence of fish, a default setting from which other fish are extravagant variations. Cod are generalists. And they are survival machines.

For one thing, they are omnivorous. Adult cod favor small schooling fish--capelin off Newfoundland, herring on Georges Bank--but they also eat crabs, shrimp, squid, and clams. (They swallow six-inch clams whole and digest out the meat.) For another, they live a long time, 20 to 25 years if left to their own devices, and mature fairly quickly--around age three on Georges Bank, and around seven in the colder waters off Newfoundland. From then on, they spawn copiously. A female cod may release several million eggs at a throw, and her partner more than matches that output in sperm.

Some time ago a biologist named Vivien Brawn observed cod spawning in a laboratory tank (which is not easy; the fish require almost total darkness to perform). It is surprisingly touching, as she describes it--not anonymous at all:

The male fish ... raised his dorsal fins momentarily ... and then approached the female slowly. Positioning himself in front of the female and about a foot away, the male cod began the courtship... . All the median fins were fully erected, and the male made many exaggerated lateral bends of the body ... accompanied by a low grunting sound... . At each grunt the female showed an increase in excitement... .

Sometimes the female ... became stationary near the bottom. The male ... then swam under the female, prodding [her] ... and giving a loud grunt... . A ripe female invariably swam rapidly up to the surface ... closely followed by the male, and both fish made many vertical circles... .

Eventually the female came to rest at the top of the tank... . The male ... swam onto her back, grasping the female with the pelvic fins... . He immediately slipped down one side [and] came to lie in an inverted position below the female with ... their genital apertures closely pressed together... . The female stiffened [and] almost immediately spawned. The male also swam and spawned... . The combined movements of the tails drove the pair round in a horizontal circle at the surface and doubtless served to mix the eggs and sperm.

The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

It has been observed in the wild as well, although not nearly on so intimate a scale. Spawning cod come together near the seafloor in huge schools that show up clearly on sonar records--or rather they used to when cod were abundant. George Rose of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has seen such schools, hundreds of millions of fish spaced about a body length apart, at a depth of a thousand feet just north of the Grand Banks. The last one he saw, in 1992, was a mile and a half across and was shaped like an upside-down saucer. For the first ten days after Rose discovered it, the school stayed more or less put near the edge of the continental shelf. But every now and then thin, transient columns would sprout up toward the surface from the main mass of fish. Rose thinks each column consisted of a few pairs of male and female cod that had found and courted each other in the dense school and were now rising out of it in order to couple in private.

The behavior of a cod school that has finished spawning is equally remarkable. In 1991, Rose watched such a school as it decamped and began to move with a purpose across the continental shelf and toward the northeast shore of Newfoundland. As the older and larger fish--Rose calls them scouts--led the way, fish that were too young to spawn streamed in from all sides and fell in behind their elders. Presently the fish began to spread out, horizontally and vertically, until they were eight or ten body lengths apart--just about as far apart as they could get, Rose calculates, and still see their neighbors. Rose thinks the cod were beating the ocean for prey.

While he was watching on his sonar screen they found it: a school of capelin off to one side but also headed inshore. The cod scouts veered to intercept their dinner; the rest of the school followed. The capelin rear guard, sensing danger, rose off the bottom in a great fleeing cloud. But the cod scouts fell in among them like wolves among sheep, like fighter planes coming out of the sun--their mottled skin camouflaging them against the graveled ground. In these few minutes, tens of thousands of capelin lives came to desperate thrashing ends.

The mass cod migration did not surprise Rose. Fishermen have known for hundreds of years that the cod don’t just show up at random, he says. They show up in particular places, and they all show up at once. So it stands to reason they’re migrating in groups. It’s like when the robins arrive in spring, or the geese, you know they’re not coming one by one. But while we can see the geese flying overhead, we can’t see the cod. Rose had an idea of where to look for them, though. As the cod head toward shallow inshore waters in search of capelin, they are also heading toward the freezing glacial melt of the Labrador current. And so they cross the continental shelf along the bottom of a trench--probably a riverbed once, but now a cod highway. That allows them to stay as long as possible in the warm (36 or 37 degrees), salty, and therefore heavy water of the deep Atlantic, which laps through the trench along its bottom.

The migrating cod leave behind their spawn: trillions of fertilized eggs, each about a twentieth of an inch across. The eggs rise toward the surface and float on the current. There the trillions begin to feel nature’s winnow: an ocean current is a fluky thing, and it cannot always be relied on to carry a cod egg where a young cod wants to be. In some years and places the eggs may get blown right off the continental shelf and out over the abyss. This dooms them. Yet some eggs always make it, and although their route to success off Newfoundland is not well known, on Georges Bank it has been worked out over the past decade by researchers at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It is a small marvel of adaptation.

Georges Bank is an oval, 150 miles long by 75 miles wide, that runs southwest to northeast across the mouth of the Gulf of Maine. As the Labrador current sweeps into the gulf from the north, it follows the coast around until it flows northeast along the landward edge of the bank. Meanwhile strong tides surge in and out of the gulf across the bank. The combination creates a clockwise flow around the bank’s perimeter.

The cod exploit this circulation. They spawn all over the bank, but especially at the northeastern end. In late winter and early spring, cod eggs rise toward the surface there and get caught in the clockwise flow. The larvae, bug-eyed and front-heavy, hatch within a couple of weeks. They proceed to grow a mouth, a gut, and an anus; fins, starting with the crucial tail; and finally scales and teeth. All the while they are drifting southwest along the seaward side of the bank and then northeast along the landward side. And all the while they are getting heavier and sinking lower in the water.

By August, if all goes well, the larvae have made a partial or even complete circuit of the bank and are ready to settle on the gravelly ground. Greg Lough of the NMFS has seen them there, through the windows of a submersible, two inches long and stemming the strong tidal current like trout in a stream. The young cod stay out of the worst of the current by hugging the bottom, beating their tail fins furiously to swim in place. But when a piece of food drifts by--a shrimp, say--the fish pop up and grab it and let the current carry them a ways. And when biologists come by in a submersible and turn on the floodlights, the fish respond in the same way: they pop up into the current and drift off into the black.

Around 99.9 percent of the larvae, though, never settle at all. They may be caught in water that leaves the bank for the open Atlantic, or that fails to make the turn at the southwestern end and instead heads off toward the purgatory of Long Island. They may be descended on by a school of hungry mackerel. Fisheries biologists do not really know what happens to the cod larvae that do not make it on Georges Bank--and still less off Newfoundland. Nor do they know why in some years many more larvae survive than in others.

What they do know is that the difference between a good year and a bad year did not used to matter as much as it does now. A population of fish that live 25 years and lay several million eggs a year each is in no danger from the occasional environmental insult. If one year’s larvae prove a flop, there are 24 other year classes in the water to pick up the slack. Nor is it only chance environmental fluctuations that cod have adapted to. Over millions of years, they have repeatedly endured the slow obliteration of their habitat by advancing or retreating glaciers and have still thrived.

And yet in one way cod are not perfectly adapted to their present environment. They have a fatal flaw: firm white flesh, free of oil and bones, which is easily preserved by salting or freezing, and which does well in all sorts of recipes. For helping to feed the expansion of European civilization, Gadus morhua is now paying a heavy price.

Europe’s first documented encounter with the rich fishery of the New World occurred in 1497, five years after Columbus’s first voyage. That is when another Italian sailor, this one working for the English crown, stumbled on Newfoundland. Or maybe it was Nova Scotia; it is not clear where Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot to us, landed. But it is clear he saw fish. The evidence is a famous letter to the duke of Milan from an Italian traveler in England. ... And they affirm that that sea is covered with fishes, wrote the traveler, who had talked with Cabot and his men upon their return.

English vessels had been venturing as far as Iceland for cod at least since the early fifteenth century. The fishermen braved the stormy North Atlantic in open boats because it paid them to; and it paid them to because eating cod was a duty to God. After 1548 it was a duty to England as well. Edward VI made eating fish on Fridays and in Lent the law, in part to promote full employment in the fishery. Illicit meat eaters were fined 10 shillings and locked up for 10 days; repeat offenders got 20 and 20.

In Catholic France no such royal interventions in favor of fish eating were necessary, and it was France more than England that initially developed the Newfoundland fishery. By the mid-sixteenth century, at least 150 French boats were crossing the Atlantic every year. But it was an English ship that expanded the New World fishery to the south. In May 1602 the Concord arrived off Massachusetts, searching for sassafras trees-- sassafras extract being at the time a popular therapy for syphilis. Anchoring off a mighty headland, Bartholomew Gosnold and his crew fished for food and caught cod aplenty. They named the headland Cape Cod. (They found sassafras there too.) Two decades later the Pilgrims were surviving on cod in nearby Plymouth, and cod was on its way to sacredness in Massachusetts.

In Newfoundland, meanwhile, the English and French had embarked on a centuries-long struggle for cod-fishing supremacy--with the French dominant at first but then gradually giving up ground. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, guaranteed American fishermen the right to fish off Newfoundland. John Adams, one of the negotiators and a Massachusetts man, had threatened to scuttle the whole deal if the British did not concede that right. By the nineteenth century, American bankers sailing mostly from Gloucester had come to dominate the Grand Banks fishery along with the French. Both countries subsidized the capital-intensive offshore fishery. The English settlers in Newfoundland stuck mostly to their bays, letting the cod come to them in summer, when the capelin swim right up onto the beaches to spawn.

The technology of New World cod fishing changed not at all during the first three centuries after Cabot’s voyage, and little during the next. It was more or less like sport fishing today, but without the rods and in worse weather. Men stood or sat in a boat and dropped hooked lines over the side. French fishermen on the Grand Banks stood in barrels lashed to the deck to protect them from the weather and wore leather aprons up to their necks. Each man had 8 or 12 hemp lines, 500 feet long or so, with a lead weight and an iron hook; and each might catch a hundred cod a day, sometimes as many as 400. Other men beheaded, split, and cleaned the cod and tossed them into the hold, where they were salted. With enough salt the fish could be preserved for the journey back to France. Alternatively, one could fish close to shore in a small boat, and return to shore that same day to dry the fish. In that case one needed less salt but more land--the split fish were spread out on the beach or on wooden stages. The English, who had no salt of their own and had to buy it from warmer countries, favored this method. That is one reason they, rather than the French, became the Newfoundlanders.

In the nineteenth century the American, French, and Portuguese bankers began to fish from dories, fanning out from their schooner at dawn, or what passed for dawn in the perpetual fog on the banks, and coming back with a boatload of fish. During the summer season the Grand Banks became a small offshore city, as Kipling described it, with hundreds of men in dories working well out of sight of land but often within sight of one another--or at least within earshot of the bells and conchs that were everyone’s lifeline in the fog. By then handlines were giving way to longlines: mile-long ropes with hundreds of baited hooks that were set on the bottom for hours and then reeled in. Some inshore fishermen, meanwhile, had switched to cod traps. These were walls of netting that ran out to sea from the land and that diverted cod into a boxlike enclosure.

With these simple tools it was possible to catch an impressive amount of fish, as the 60,000-ton harvest from New England in 1895 proved, and over the first four centuries the North American fisheries slowly expanded. Yet North American cod emerged from the nineteenth century relatively unscathed. Fishermen still lacked the tools to wipe cod out. I believe that the cod fishery ... and probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible, wrote Thomas Huxley, the eminent nineteenth-century biologist; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish. Even in 1883, when Huxley made that remark, it was not true for fish in general; halibut, for instance, were already in decline off the coast of Massachusetts, after suffering a vogue of only a few decades on the dinner tables of Boston. A century later Huxley’s claim was to become preposterously untrue even for cod. By then, fishing technology had changed a lot.

The most important change came from Huxley’s England. The steam- powered otter trawler was already in use there even as the New England schooners were hauling in their record harvest in 1895. Today the otter trawl is used everywhere groundfish are caught. It is a 150- or 200-foot- long net, shaped a bit like a wind sock. Giant wooden planks called otter boards are attached to both sides of its mouth. As the net is towed over the seafloor, scraping the bottom, the force of the water on the otter boards keeps it open, and fish are swept into the closed end of the net, which is called the cod end--and not just because it catches cod. Cod was a Middle English word for bag, and apparently a contemptuous way of referring to a very common fish; later it became a doubly apt name for the bag that caught the fish. (Cod was also a Middle English vulgarism for scrotum-- hence the term codpiece.)

The first American steamer equipped with an otter trawl sailed out of Boston in 1905--to the alarm, not surprisingly, of traditional fishermen. By 1914 the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries had appointed a committee to investigate what damage the otter trawl might do to fish stocks. The committee reported that the new technology was already causing a decline of fish in the North Sea--not yet of cod, perhaps, those prodigious reproducers, but certainly of plaice and haddock. Proof came in 1919, when English fishermen returned to the North Sea in strength after World War I; they found that their daily catch had more than doubled since 1913. The break from fishing had allowed the fish stocks to recover. Yet neither England nor America was moved to restrict otter trawling.

The otter trawl proceeded to decimate the haddock stock on Georges Bank. Although haddock is a close relative of cod and similar in taste, the demand for it in the United States vastly outstripped that for cod after World War I--especially after packaged frozen fillets were introduced in the 1920s. They made a nice change from leathery salt cod. New England fishermen raced to meet the demand; in 1929 they landed 120,000 tons of haddock from Georges Bank. On a graph showing the haddock catch throughout the twentieth century, 1929 is a hideous fever spike--a warning that was never heeded. By 1934 the haddock catch had plunged to 28,000 tons. After that it picked up a bit until the 1960s, when the haddock on Georges Bank were obliterated again.

During the haddock heyday, cod enjoyed a period of obscurity; in 1953 only 8,100 tons were taken off Georges, a record low. In the Newfoundland cod fishery, too, the first half of the twentieth century was relatively quiet. French and Portuguese otter trawlers began to work the Grand Banks, while Newfoundlanders continued to fish inshore in traditional ways (although many now had motors on their dories). The catch slowly increased, but it did not skyrocket--until after 1954. That is when the British ship Fairtry appeared on the horizon.

The Fairtry was a new kind of fishing boat: a factory trawler. It was 280 feet long and displaced 2,600 tons, which made it several times larger than the largest trawler of the day--but much smaller than some of the ships that were soon to follow it. The Fairtry had been commissioned by a Scottish whaling firm that was keen to expand out of factory whaling now that whale stocks were in decline. Its maiden voyage to the Grand Banks was a success; the biggest problem was that the huge net was sometimes filled with so many tons of fish that the gear gave way under the strain. Nothing is more provoking, the captain of the Fairtry wrote in one of his reports, than to see this happen or the cod end burst and the sea covered with dying fish.

By the 1960s the Fairtry had been joined on the North American banks by many more factory ships, not from North America but from the Soviet Union, Germany, and other nations. The largest displaced some 8,000 tons. All were designed to fillet and freeze the fish immediately; and all were designed to catch huge amounts of fish. In an hour, one factory ship could haul in as much cod, around a hundred tons, as a typical boat of the sixteenth century could land in a season. In 1968, 810,000 tons of cod were caught off Labrador and on the northern Grand Banks--nearly three times more than had ever been caught in a single year before 1954.

The result, in retrospect, seems entirely predictable. It may even seem astonishing that we let it happen: that in the space of two decades we let foreign ships all but wipe out one of our great natural resources. But the freedom of the high seas was a tradition that was not easily jettisoned. Moreover, except among fisheries scientists, and even among some of them, the old prejudice of an inexhaustible sea still held sway. No one thought you could overfish cod on the banks. By the mid-1970s, though, it was clear something had happened. The cod catch had plummeted to less than 200,000 tons off Newfoundland, and on Georges Bank to less than 30,000 tons. The haddock on Georges were practically gone. In 1977, with their fishermen screaming for help, both Canada and the United States extended their territorial waters out to the present limit, 200 miles offshore. That excluded foreign vessels from most of the fishing.

What is truly astonishing is what happened next. With the factory ships gone, both Canada and the United States had a chance to re-create a sustainable cod fishery. Neither country did. And the fact that biologists were still just getting to know cod--and still learning how to count their far from inexhaustible numbers--was to contribute to that failure, particularly in Newfoundland.

The basic idea is, once you’ve eaten all the fish, you know how many there used to be, says Ransom Myers, a population biologist in the Canadian DFO in St. John’s. That is how Myers explains virtual population analysis, which is the state of the art in fish counting. The state of the art in fish counting is not terribly good. Imagine that the only information demographers had about us was the number of murders committed each year and the results of the occasional Gallup poll. They would probably have a hard time estimating how many living Americans there are. So it is with fish-stock assessors: they have no direct information on how many fish are born, nor on how many die naturally. The only fish they can count are the dead ones on deck or dock. Yet they must decide how many fish are alive in the ocean, so that policymakers may decide how many may be caught without causing the population to collapse.

Virtual population analysis, or VPA, is the stock assessors’ solution. It works like this: Although researchers cannot measure how many cod are born in a given year, they can track the progress of that year class once its members are large enough to show up in fishermen’s nets. They do so by taking a small but representative sample of the catch as it is unloaded at port. In the laboratory, they determine the age of each fish by dissecting out a tiny ear bone, called an otolith, that has annual growth rings like those of a tree. After a year’s worth of sampling, dissecting, and ring counting, biologists can estimate how many of the cod that fishermen caught were three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and so on.

If they repeat this procedure year after year, they will eventually reach a point at which no more fish born in a given year are showing up on the dock, because all of them are already dead. Some of those fish were eaten by seals or died of heart attacks before fishermen could catch them, and so researchers take a guess at what percentage of the cod population that natural mortality eliminates each year. Adding that to the percentage caught by fishermen--the fishing mortality--and adding all the years together, they can count all the cod that were born in, say, 1984, and are now dead.

That alone does them little good, of course. What they want to know is how many fish of all ages are alive now. The VPA’s accurate census of the dead, though, allows researchers to calibrate their less accurate sources of information on the living. There are two such sources. Each is lousy in its own way.

The first source of information is research surveys--the fisheries equivalent of Gallup polls. The NMFS in Woods Hole and the DFO in St. John’s do these every year. Unlike fishermen, the poll takers do not go looking for fish; they take their research vessel to hundreds of randomly selected points, trawl, and see what they get. By repeating the same procedure every year with the same gear, they can track changes in a population. The survey does not give them an absolute head count, however, because they have no way of knowing how complete their sample is--how many fish are escaping their nets. But the VPA provides a clue. Since all the cod that were in the ocean in 1984 are now eaten and accounted for, researchers do know, belatedly, what relation the research survey from that year bore to the real world. Assuming they did the survey the same way in 1994, that gives them an idea of what the real 1994 numbers are.

A second way of getting a fix on the living fish population is to look at how hard fishermen are having to work. The fewer fish there are, the logic goes, the longer it will take to catch a given number. By keeping track, year after year, of how many fish fishermen catch for each day at sea, one can chart changes in the fish stock. With the help of the VPA, one can then translate that information into an assessment of the current stock. Both methods of counting fish--research surveys and the commercial catch per unit effort--were used in Newfoundland, with disastrous results.

Myers and his colleague Jeffrey Hutchings have devoted the past couple of years of their lives to deconstructing the disaster--and to second-guessing those of their DFO colleagues whose job is to count cod. You can’t live here and not be touched by what’s been happening, says Hutchings. My family is here seven generations. The fishery is everything. That’s it. There’s almost no industry; there’s no other natural resources except for some pulp and paper, a little bit of mining. It’s always been the fishery, and everything is linked to the fishery. So this kind of work is very different from other scientific work--if we get it wrong, this is going to affect a lot of people.

After the foreigners were kicked off the Newfoundland banks, a brief period of euphoria descended on the province. This was to be Newfoundland’s chance at last. Its inhabitants were poor, unemployed, and still living, some of them, in outports that could not be reached by road. Past efforts to diversify the economy had more or less failed. Maybe the path to the twentieth century lay with cod after all. The foreigners had shown just how many fish could be caught; now those fish would belong to Newfoundland. The government deliberately encouraged the expansion of the offshore fishery, even buying a major trawling company itself.

In the midst of this glee, DFO biologists were asked to forecast how fast the cod stock would grow, now that it was no longer being gobbled up by foreign factory trawlers. The stock assessors must have felt considerable pressure; the euphoria must have affected them too. Certainly they fed it. To predict the growth of the cod stock, they had to estimate how many young fish would be recruited to the fishery each year. They decided to assume that future recruitment, after 1977, would be the same as the average during the 1960s and 1970s. During all that time, though, the stock had been continuously declining, as factory trawlers mowed the banks; by 1977, Myers and Hutchings’s analysis of the data show, the number of spawning cod off Newfoundland was down by 94 percent from what it had been in 1962. Thus by averaging all those years together, the DFO was being decidedly optimistic.

In particular, it was assuming that the low number of spawning cod would not diminish the size of the newly recruited year class--that the number of mothers, in other words, would not limit the number of babies. This assumption is not quite as crazy as it sounds. After all, each cod mother lays several million eggs, and the vast majority of them die. Conceivably the number of eggs that make it might depend only on an environmental fluke--how cold the water was that year, say--and not at all on the total number that were laid. It is an indication of how little we know of cod that so basic a question should still be open for discussion; some biologists still believe there is little relation between cod recruitment and the spawning stock. At any rate the DFO stock assessors believed it in the late 1970s, and they predicted the diminished stock would rebound rapidly. They said the cod catch, which had fallen to 139,000 tons by 1978, could safely be increased to 350,000 tons by 1985--and all of that for Newfoundland.

For a few years the DFO got lucky. By chance, the years from 1978 through 1981 really did turn out to be a time of relatively good recruitment--although not as good as the DFO had predicted. During those years, with the foreign trawlers gone, the number of cod off Newfoundland actually increased. But so did the ability of Newfoundlanders to catch cod. Egged on by federal subsidies and by the DFO’s optimistic projections, the industry was expanding. Newfoundlanders had otter trawlers now--not factory ships, to be sure, but ships that were large enough to enable them to fish offshore even in bad weather. And those ships had modern navigational and sonar equipment that enabled fishermen to find cod wherever they lived--to locate the large spawning schools and to sweep them up. With the goal of a 350,000-ton harvest, the DFO increased its catch quota several times during the early 1980s. But the cod were simply not there in the numbers DFO was claiming. The agency was cheerleading rather than regulating.

Although fishermen were not catching as many cod as DFO was allowing them to, Hutchings and Myers have found, they were catching more than the cod population could sustain. DFO had started with an overly optimistic forecast of how the cod stock would grow, and from then on it consistently overestimated the size of the stock. Since it had started doing random research surveys only in 1978, it relied at first on the commercial fishing data--the catch per unit effort. The problem with doing that should have been obvious: fishermen can increase their catch rate when the fish population is flat, and even when it is going down. You have smart people working very hard to maximize their income by catching fish, Myers explains. So their efficiency is increasing over time. The stock- assessment people thought the cod population was increasing remarkably; they thought fishing mortality was low. In fact Canadians were basically learning how to fish offshore and were getting more efficient.

By the mid-1980s the problem was apparent, to outside critics anyway, in the DFO’s own data. Once most of the fish from the late 1970s and early 1980s were dead, the VPA revealed that there had been many fewer of them than DFO had claimed at the time. That meant fishermen had been harvesting a much higher percentage of the cod stock than DFO had thought-- so high that the stock could not be growing at the rate DFO had projected. By 1985, Myers and Hutchings believe, it was not growing at all. It had begun its long slide into catastrophe.

For the next three years, the DFO continued to assert that the stock was growing. By then the stock assessors had started to rely more heavily on their research surveys. As it turned out, that did not help matters. All polls produce highly variable results, but that is especially true of polls of fish. For reasons that no one understands even now, the 1986 survey spiked: it suggested there was an uncommonly large amount of cod off Newfoundland. This encouraged the DFO. Not until the next two research surveys produced sharply lower results did the agency suddenly sit up and take notice.

By then it was too late. Nowhere in the world do scientists dictate how many fish are to be caught; that decision is ultimately a political one. By 1989 the political and economic momentum behind an expanded Newfoundland fishery was too great. Not wanting to throw thousands of people out of work, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans rejected his stock assessors’ advice to cut the 1989 cod quota all at once by more than half, to 125,000 tons. Instead he cut it by a tenth. Politically it’s very difficult to reduce fishing, says Myers. Particularly because there’s uncertainty--you’re causing great hardship, and you’re not certain. There are a lot of possible errors. But in fact the error was in the other direction--there were even fewer fish and higher mortality than what DFO thought.

Even after its change of heart in 1989, DFO continued to overestimate the size of the cod stock. The research surveys appear to have been too high, says Myers. But they looked okay, and the commercial catch rate data were not examined closely. They were not very clear, but they did show a decline. The analysis of them was completely botched. So you were already taking out too many fish, but because of the error you were taking out tremendously too many.

And toward the end, as the cod population declined, people tried to maintain their catch rates to maintain their income. So they fished harder. Inshore fishermen were going in small boats 100 miles offshore and setting bottom gill nets--they were going way the hell out under incredibly dangerous conditions. That caused the fish population to go down more quickly, which caused the fishermen to fish harder.

Meanwhile it was clear that there were not many older fish, the spawning fish. And there weren’t many younger fish coming through either. There were lots of people who thought fishing mortality was too high and should be reduced. But no one suspected the magnitude of what was happening. Instead of being two and a half times what was desirable, the mortality was five times too high. And with fishing mortality that high, the stock can collapse very quickly. In 1991, by Myers and Hutchings’s reckoning, Newfoundland fishermen caught more than half the cod living in their waters, some 180,000 tons. In December of that year, the DFO recommended that they catch the same amount in 1992.

But it never came to that: in July 1992 the minister was forced to close the cod fishery entirely. By then there were next to no cod of spawning age, seven or older, left. There were just 22,000 tons’ worth, less than a quarter of what there had been in 1977, after the factory trawlers had done their worst, and around an eightieth of the spawner biomass in 1962. Recent history seems to confirm that the DFO’s initial assumption--that there can be plenty of cod babies even when there are few cod mothers--was wishful thinking. After two and a half years, there has been little recovery, and no one knows when the moratorium will be lifted. It has thrown 30,000 people out of work in Newfoundland, out of a population of 570,000.

The people who were responsible for assessing the Newfoundland cod stock do not see history in the same way Myers and Hutchings do. We certainly can’t worm off the hook, says Jake Rice, who was with the DFO in St. John’s from 1982 to 1990 and headed its groundfish division from 1988 on. But DFO could not have prevented a very large decline in the cod stock in the 1990s. If we had had perfect tools and had managed the stock differently in the late 1980s, we could have mitigated the problem--but I don’t think decisions made in the early to mid-1980s made any difference at all. What happened came on very quickly. None of us are prepared to accept how unforgiving ecosystems can be.

Something mysterious, Rice and others within DFO believe, happened in 1991--a sudden, drastic, and unexpected drop in cod, as a couple of other DFO biologists referred to it in a recent paper. Maybe the water got too cold for cod; maybe harp seals ate them. Myers and Hutchings have little use for such dei ex machina. Some people believe there was actually a huge number of fish out there, Myers says. Then all of a sudden they died or something--and no bodies were found. And it’s not our fault, it’s the environment--the environment changed. I think that’s total nonsense.

New england had two years to learn from Newfoundland, and it learned nothing. The stakes were always lower there. Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine were never anywhere near as rich in cod as the Grand Banks; Gloucestermen used to sail to the Grand, after all. Moreover, it has been a long time since fishing was as dominant a component of the economy in New England as it is in Newfoundland. But it still matters a lot in places like Gloucester. The long history of the cod fishery should have been reason enough not to throw it away.

After 1977, though, with the creation of the 200-mile limit, the New England fishing industry experienced the same euphoria as Newfoundland. Fishermen had lobbied Congress hard to have the foreign trawlers kicked out, and they expected a bonanza. Between 1977 and 1983, the number of boats fishing out of New England increased from 825 to 1,423. The new boats were bigger and equipped with the latest electronic fish-finding equipment. The fish never had a chance. The cod catch on Georges Bank alone peaked in 1982 at more than 53,000 tons. Then it started to decline. As the stock declined, the mortality inflicted by fishing rose, just as it did in Newfoundland. The difference is that in New England, fisheries biologists knew it was happening all along, and said so.

Under the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the National Marine Fisheries Service is charged with assessing the status of fish stocks and with overseeing their management. But recommendations as to what restrictions, if any, to place on fishing are left to regional councils composed mostly of fishing industry representatives--fish processors, fishermen’s association leaders, and fishermen themselves.

During the 1980s the New England council proved itself unwilling to control fishing. Indeed, one of its early actions, in 1982, was to eliminate catch quotas. Its goal, it said, was a simpler system that would allow the fishery to operate in response to its own internal forces. As the decade progressed, the fishery did just that--and as NMFS scientists warned of declining stocks of cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, the council dithered. That changed only in 1991, when the NMFS was sued by the Conservation Law Foundation. Under court order, the council began drafting regulations that would require fishermen to reduce their number of days at sea by 10 percent a year for five years--the goal being to cut fishing effort and presumably fishing mortality in half. Fishermen protested: while the council system turns the henhouse over to the foxes, it manages to leave most of the foxes feeling unrepresented. Nevertheless, the new regulations, known as Amendment 5, finally took effect last May.

Three months later the NMFS announced that the regulations would not be nearly enough to save Georges Bank cod--let alone haddock or yellowtail flounder, which had already collapsed. In 1993, the NMFS said, fishermen had caught 55 percent of the cod living on the bank. Only reducing fishing immediately to levels approaching zero could save the stock now. In December the NMFS implemented emergency regulations to close large parts of Georges Bank to all groundfishing while the New England council figured out a long-term solution. Just how long-term was anyone’s guess; the NMFS guess was that it might take decades for the cod stock to recover.

At the meeting in the Peabody Holiday Inn last November, the New England council’s groundfish committee was beginning to pick up the pieces. Among other things, it was arguing about what exactly approaching zero meant--whether at least some cod fishing might not continue. In the audience that day was an NMFS scientist named Andrew Rosenberg. In the early 1990s Rosenberg was the NMFS liaison to the New England council, charged with passing on the scientists’ advice. Now he is on temporary assignment to the Gloucester office, charged with implementing all fishing regulations. It’s come to the point now where unless you’re absolutely blind you can’t pretend that the stock isn’t in very bad shape, because it’s almost gone, says Rosenberg. And still people are arguing ‘We don’t want to have a direct control on how much we catch.’

The dreadful irony of overfishing, as any fisheries scientist will explain, is that if it could somehow be stopped, and fish stocks were allowed to grow, and fishermen fished at a rate that was lower than the stocks’ growth rate, they could catch more fish with less effort. In New England, NMFS economist Steven Edwards and population biologist Steven Murawski have estimated, overfishing costs the economy $150 million a year in lost groundfish. Nationwide that loss has been put at $2 billion. It’s just like interest in a bank account, says Rosenberg. If you’re earning 5 percent interest, and you take 10 percent out every year, what happens to the account? It drops like a stone. If you take 3 percent of the account every year and it’s earning 5 percent, it grows. And eventually 3 percent of a big number is bigger than 10 percent of a very small number.

When it was first discussed, Rosenberg goes on, Amendment 5 probably could have done something for cod. You had some big year classes in the late 1980s that could have helped production. If some protection had come in rapidly at that point, if somebody had said, ‘Hold it, we’ve got something coming through; instead of just fishing it harder, let’s really back off and let that build a new stock for us’--if they had done that, then you would have been in relatively good shape. But by the time Amendment 5 came along, those good year classes were gone. It’s the bank account analogy again. If you’ve got your money in the bank and suddenly you get a little inheritance, you can either blow it all in the first year, or you can hang on to it. After time, 5 percent of the inheritance will be quite a large number, and you’ll be able to use it for a long period. The option chosen here was equivalent to blowing it.

What is to be done? The few cod that are left are doing their best already--still chasing capelin and herring, still stemming the currents on the banks, still ascending by twos from their diminished schools to couple gently in the gray unquiet Atlantic. On Georges Bank, at least, they are responding just as biologists would expect to a predator that is slaughtering them: they are spawning sooner--at age two now instead of three. They are living faster because they are dying younger.

Meanwhile, as their numbers have declined, they have surrendered their dominance on the bank to other species, such as skates and spiny dogfish. These fish are less attractive to consumers (although fishermen are going after them nonetheless), and they prey on young cod. How this will affect the recovery of cod, no one knows. At Memorial University in Newfoundland, biologists are trying to perfect a system for hatching cod, in hopes of boosting the wild stocks. Maybe this will work--but it has been tried repeatedly without success.

American consumers have not suffered much yet from the Atlantic cod crisis; for the moment, the slack is being taken up by Pacific cod, by Norwegian and Russian cod from the Barents Sea, and by similar fish such as pollack, which are now being swept up by factory ships off Alaska. But the U.S. and Canadian governments are having to pay dearly for the irrationality they permitted in their fisheries. The U.S. government has already allocated $60 million to easing the pain of Atlantic fishermen, Canada more than $600 million. If these programs keep too many boats chasing too few fish, they will be counterproductive in the end. In New England there is much talk of paying fishermen not to fish, as some farmers are paid not to farm. The idea is for the government to buy boats and get rid of them. Fishermen tend to feel this is no more than their due.

Meanwhile, the Magnuson Act is up for reconsideration in Congress. Economists will tell you the problem is that the resource is free and open to all. Wealth that is free for all is valued by none, they say. Fish are in fact the only natural resource in the United States that is still given away; even cattle ranchers and timber companies pay fees, however small, for their use of public lands. To many economists, the solution is to let fishermen own the fish in the sea or perhaps the right to take them. Fishermen with an ownership stake in Georges Bank cod, a stake they might want to sell sometime, might be expected to husband the resource. They might start, one economist has suggested, by weeding out those cod-eating dogfish.

Anthropologists who study fisheries tend to think the problem is not enough democracy in fisheries management--rather than too much, as some critics of the council system would say. They argue, not unlike the economists, that more local control of a fishery would lead to wiser use of it. The problem with such an approach in a fishery as diverse as New England’s would be that fishermen there tend not to agree on much. When they are not blaming pollution or global warming or the scientists for the decline in fish stocks, they often tend to blame other fishermen. At the Peabody meeting, a man from Cape Cod got up to recommend, not implausibly, a return to hooks and lines; a Maine gillnetter moved that otter trawls be banned from the Gulf of Maine; and otter trawlers from Gloucester loudly denounced all such attempts at discrimination.

Most fishermen recognize that the fishery is in trouble. But most are anything but rich, and many chafe at restraints. Freedom to work when and how they want is one of the things that draw people to fishing; many believe they have a right to fish. What the cod crisis demonstrates is that the world has become too small, and our own numbers too large, for such a right to be acknowledged anymore. It is a privilege that has been abused. That is hard to accept.

You’re talking about people’s livelihoods, says Rosenberg. A scientist looks at it simplistically: ‘The harvest rate should be this, and it’s not, so you should reduce it.’ But when you reduce it, who goes out of business, who has to move away, and who is unemployed?

The difficulty, though, is that at some point there is a biological bottom line. When I was liaison officer to the New England council, I used to call my job A Thousand Ways of Saying You’re Killing Too Many Fish. I was supposed to be passing on the scientific advice--and that’s what it was: ‘You’re killing too many fish. Too many fish are dying due to fishing. The fish are dying more rapidly than they’re reproducing.’ You could say it a thousand ways. But it amounts to the same thing.

All over the world people are failing to hear that message; all over the world, out of desperation and greed, ignorance and mismanagement, people are finding the bottom of fish stocks that once seemed bottomless. Yet it is still shocking that it should happen to cod--stolid, prolific, resilient cod, numberless cod, beef of the sea. It is shocking precisely because we never really did hold cod sacred, not the real flesh-and-blood animals anyway. Though we hardly knew them, we took them for granted--much as hunters once took the buffalo for granted when the prairie was black with them. There is no great mystery about what happened to the buffalo, and none either about what happened to the cod off northeastern America. Men like the ones in that Holiday Inn ballroom--the last of the buffalo hunters--caught them. And the rest of us ate them.

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