Cod: Fishermen Mine Lessons From Mismanagement

by Laurie Schreiber

Codfish drying station Bass Harbor, Maine 1890’s. Before refrigeration fish drying stations were strung along the Maine coast. Great numbers of cod fish were gutted and laid out to dry after being salted for preservation. Dried and salted fish could be shipped long distances without spoiling. Millions of fish, thousands of boats and many thousands of people were employed in the ground fishery in Maine not so very long ago. NOAA Codfish Project Photo

If groundfish stocks are going to return to their historical levels of abundance – and some are optimistic they will – then fishermen and fishery managers are going to have to figure out how to make sure they never crash again.

“Will we just make all the same mistakes again?” Robin Alden said. “We’re trying to make sure that we have a really good alternative to what we’ve done with groundfish in the past.”

Alden and her husband, Ted Ames, recently spoke at College of the Atlantic on the connections between rivers, oceans, and cod, and what they called “a unique ecological and economic opportunity in the eastern Gulf of Maine.”

Alden is a former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. For 20 years, she was publisher and editor of Commercial Fisheries News, a regional fishing trade newspaper that she founded in 1973. She later became publisher and editor of the company's new publication, Fish Farming News. She was a co-founder of the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum and received the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment Visionary Award in 1997. Alden has served on the New England Fishery Management Council and on the National Sea Grant Review Panel, and is currently on Maine Sea Grant's Policy Advisory Committee. She holds a BA in economics from the University of Maine.

Ames fished commercially for 28 years. He was formerly vice-chair of the DMR’s Hatchery Technology Committee, executive director of the Maine Gillnetters Association and director of Alden-Ames Lab, an environmental and water quality laboratory. He received his bachelors and masters degrees in biochemistry from the University of Maine where he taught for 10 years. Ames is the recipient of a 2005 MacArthur Award.

The couple co-founded Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC) in Stonington, whose mission is “to restore a diverse and healthy ecosystem to eastern Maine.”

Ames characterized the depression of many marine species, including groundfish, herring and alewives, as an opportunity to study interconnections in the ecosystem toward improving fishery management. He described studies that, when linked, show that, historically, the autumn arrival of “young of year” alewives down Maine’s rivers and into the bays once provided forage for groundfish stocks such as cod, pollock and haddock. One 1925 study of Muscongus Bay showed that each female alewife produced about 1,500 fingerlings; once the fingerlings exited the rivers and hit salt water, they were between 2 1/2 and 4/12 inches long, he said. For just the one bay, that added up to 1,130 metric tons of fingerlings every fall.

“I thought that was a pretty significant prey base for an area that was seven to eight miles wide,” Ames said.

And yet the local groundfish stocks seem to have disappeared from that part of the coast in the 1950s, a time when the sardine cannery business for juvenile herring – which includes alewives – was at its peak and harvesting enormous numbers.

Alden noted that the recent start of the demolition of the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot River was the first step toward normal function for the river’s sea-run fish. The multi-year project also includes the removal of a second dam and improvement of fish passages on the river and its tributaries.

“When you look at river restoration on the scale of the Penobscot, we have a lot of hope that this forage base will rebuild,” Alden said.

The river’s restoration is indicative of the type of action that can be taken to restore the ecosystem as a whole, she said.

The marine ecosystem now is degraded and lacks the diverse complexity of marine life that it once had. Lobster’s dominance ensnares fishermen and fishing communities because they become economically dependent on a monoculture system, she said.

“This is a very precarious social and economic situation,” she said.

To secure a future for fishing communities, she said, there must be abundant resources, fishing rights to fish resources that are nearby, and markets that can turn wild products into salable commodities.

There are two fishing strategies, she said. Single-fishery fishermen are able to pursue a rational business strategy for their species, especially when it’s managed over a large-scale geography.
However, she said, community-scale fishermen need access rights to a variety of species near their hometowns.

“That’s what we’re looking to try to rebuild,” she said.

Alden asked the audience to think about what happens if alewives and groundfish do come back.

“We think we have an amazing opportunity to do something completely different,” she said. “Just imagine a completely different reality than what we’re in right now. Imagine a place that can sustain itself forever fishing. Imagine fishing communities where fishermen and their community members are caring for the coves and the mud and the seaweed and the fish and the bottom of the ocean they can’t see. Imagine a place where you have a resilient economy that adapts to changes in the ecosystem and in the markets. Imagine producing high-quality marine food for the world at a fair price forever….I’m not talking about just fiddling at the edges of what we’re doing right now. I’m envisioning something completely different.”

Rather than the current regime, where the government’s job is to take care of the fish and the fishermen’s job is to get as much fish as they can, fishermen will be a fundamental part of taking care of the place that sustains them, she said.

“There’s a convergence of factors that’s occurring right now in this area we’re looking at, and I think that, if we think completely differently about what it is that a 21st century fishing economy would look like, we have a chance to create something brand new and demonstrate it’s possible to do this,” Alden said.

Alden said that images from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) appear to validate the idea that the eastern Gulf of Maine can be managed locally, rather than as a small part of the larger gulf from Cape Cod to Canada. A map published by NOAA two years ago shows the system of currents that run through the gulf. A cold, glacier-melt current circles between Nova Scotia and eastern Maine, taking an offshore turn back to Nova Scotia at Penobscot Bay. Currents to the west of the bay circle south toward Cape Cod. That means that the ecology of the waters of eastern Maine is different from the ecology of the rest of the gulf to the west.

“This is huge, because it means we might have a chance to do something locally in eastern Maine as a unit,” she said. “It gives us the chance to think about something at a scale where we all can tackle it….This coastal current really defines the ecology of this stretch of the coastline, and that’s why NOAA is thinking of it differently.”

The next step, she said, is to manage resources and fisheries by area, and not just by individual species.

“They all exist in the ecosystem together, and are linked,” she said. “What we’ve said is, how a fish is caught, where it’s caught and when it’s caught matters as much as how many are caught.”

Eastern Maine would be an ideal region to introduce the concept of ecosystem management, she said.

“We’re relatively simple, 50 fishing communities, the two most fishery-dependent counties on the East Coast,” she said. “Fishing still matter here; we have lots of fishermen. Why not to try to figure this out in eastern Maine?”

Alden said that PERC has been working toward engaging fishermen in community fisheries action roundtables, trying to build the skills for fishermen to participate in management.

“Fishermen have a unique role in any fisheries discussion,” she said. “They’re the ones who are out there and have a tremendous amount of local knowledge, and they’re the only ones who are there when they’re catching them.”

PERC’s process is meant to facilitate open communication, she said.

“Fishery management has been such a disaster for so long that fishermen are rightly disillusioned, angry, frustrated,” she said. “It’s a terrible, dysfunctional situation. And it’s very hard to build enough hope to think that it’s worth trying to participate.

If you have a sense of futility about whether there’s a reason to think there’s going to be more of a resource in the future, you don’t behave the same way as you do when you think that what you do matters.”

Over 20 years ago, groundfish—cod, haddock, pollock, hake, and flounder—disappeared in Maine from the Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border, according to Alden and Ames. These species remain depleted despite healthier populations in other parts of the Gulf of Maine. Although 3,000 people fish the waters in eastern Maine, not one fishes groundfish; those fishing rights are lost. Still, they said, the converging factors seen just this year – including the dam removal and programs to regain fishing rights – are the building blocks of a resilient marine ecosystem and fishing economy.

“We can fish forever,” said Alden. “We just have to have the courage and vision and willingness to roll up our sleeves to do it together.”