PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.
It’s easy to imagine this recent drop in the cod population as a new phenomenon — a result, perhaps, of global warming, or some combination of climate change and overfishing by giant steel ships armed with electronic fish-finders and precise GPS navigation systems. And it’s just as easy to imagine that, after a season or two of belt-tightening, fish populations will rebound — it is, after all, a strategy that state and federal regulators have pursued for decades.
In fact, humans have been affecting the Atlantic’s fish stocks for centuries, beginning with technology so simple that people today would not even consider it “technology.” Forgetting that history, we opt for short-term fixes, which only compound the problem.
The fishery resources of the western Atlantic once seemed virtually limitless, with fish supposedly as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara. And yet the current emergency effort to restore cod populations is simply the latest chapter in a 150-year saga in which fishermen, scientists, industrialists and politicians have consistently confronted emptier nets and fewer fish.
As early as the 1850s, fishermen from Maine and Massachusetts began to pester their governments to do something about declining cod catches. Those men fished with hooks and lines from small wooden sailboats and rowboats. Fearing “the material injury of the codfishing interests of this state” by increased fishing for menhaden, a critical forage fish for cod, fishermen from Gouldsboro, Me., implored the Legislature in 1857 to limit menhaden hauls.
Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War. There have been plenty of warnings along the way. Maine’s fishery commissioner, Edwin W. Gould, spoke out plainly in 1892. “It is the same old story,” he said. “The buffalo is gone; the whale is disappearing; the seal fishery is threatened with destruction.” For Mr. Gould, the path forward was clear: “Fish need protection.”
In July 1914, after more than 40 years of reports on declining fishery resources by the United States Fish Commission and state fish commissions, The New York Times ran an article forecasting disaster. “Extermination Threatens American Sea Fishes — Cost to Consumer Has Risen between 10 and 600 Per Cent Because of Decrease in Supply.”
But that was right before a technological revolution in the fisheries. Sails and oars and hooks and lines were about to be replaced by steam and diesel engines, and massive nets dragged along the bottom that snared every fish in their path. Decades of well-founded concerns about depletion were overwhelmed by an avalanche of cheap fish. The new generation of draggers could fish faster, harder and deeper for the few fish that remained. Fishermen breathed a sigh of relief.
Twentieth-century cod populations, ravaged by draggers’ efficiency, declined further. In 1954 a fisheries economist from Boston charged fishing interests with continuing “to exploit recklessly the limited self-renewing stocks of these species.” That was just before the first factory-equipped freezer-trawler arrived at the prime fishing waters around the Grand Banks off Newfoundland from Europe. The size of an ocean liner, it could scoop up everything in its wake. Those ships made the steam-powered draggers from 1914 look positively quaint. And they caught lots of fish.
Overfishing has been the norm for a very long time, but the market has masked the mess in two fundamental ways. At every step fishermen confronting declining catches developed gear that fished more intensively, taking a larger percentage of the fewer fish that remained. Such a strategy was clearly not sustainable. Meanwhile, fishermen continued to earn enough to make fishing worthwhile, even if many encouraged their sons to pursue other careers because there would be little future in fishing. The Gulf of Maine cod stocks today are probably only a fraction of 1 percent of what they were during George Washington’s presidency.
If there is any lesson in this story of large-scale, long-term environmental degradation, it is not that fishermen were (or are) to blame, or that scientists were (or are) to blame, or that politicians were (or are) to blame. The system was (and is) to blame. Our system of exploiting nature’s resources, with its checks and balances, its desire for prosperity and security, its willingness to honor a multiplicity of voices, and its changing sense of “normal” is insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depends.
The recent ban on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine was an important step toward restoration, though clearly marine systems are very complex and subject to many variables. Considering that ban in light of history, however, is crucial. Historical perspectives provide a vital sense of scale for the sobering restoration challenges we face.
The fisheries story, however, also provides a heading into the future, revealing as it does the tragic consequences of decision makers’ unwillingness to steer a precautionary course in the face of environmental uncertainties. At every step of the way, decisions could have been made to exploit fish stocks more sustainably. That’s a tale worth pondering.