October 1998 News & Comment for and by the Fishermen of Maine SUBSCRIBE NOW!!
For Cod's Sake!
by Paul Molyneaux
Haddock Nubble is the name of a once productive fishing ground off Matinicus. Earlier in this century men from the islands of Penobscot Bay searched for it by sounding with a leadline. A gob of tallow in the lead would bring up a bit of the bottom telling them when they'd found the right spot. According to the few who remember, handliners there would catch cod weighing as much as 100 pounds. Nobody needs to be told that those days are over.
Word is out that Gulf of Maine cod stocks are in trouble. Exactly how much trouble is being hotly debated. The stock has been defined as overfished and scientists armed with stock estimates derived from a variety of data run through complex computer programs say it is collapsing. Fishermen, armed with first hand experience are denying it. Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses, but the stakes are high and choosing the wrong course of action at this point will have severe consequences.
The New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) is faced with the task of balancing the interests of the industry and the need to comply with the Sustainable Fisheries Act which requires a rebuilding program to be in place for all overfished species. Many fishermen claim the scientists' numbers are flawed and that any more cuts in landings will put them out of business. At a recent meeting with the NEFMC, fishermen testified that under existing regulations they were forced to dump cod in order to keep fishing. Other more conscientious fishermen claimed they had to run away from cod so as not to exceed their quotas, and have to come in early while their days-at-sea clocks continued running to account for the overage. Many felt that the 400 lb./day trip limit and the rolling closures already in place should be given time to work.
The Stock Assessment Review Committee (SARC) is a panel of scientists - mostly from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Wood's Hole, Massachusetts - and industry advisors. They claim that due to record low recruitment over the last few years the Gulf of Maine cod stock is not responding to the current rebuilding program and is headed for collapse. In its latest report the SARC "recommends an immediate reduction in fishing mortality to near zero." A moratorium.
Due to this report, Phil Haring of the NEFMC warned that, "people should be on the alert that Gulf of Maine cod are going to be getting a lot more attention." The SARC report claims that even if the 1998 target of a 63% reduction in cod landings were met the stock would still be overfished.
According to Northeast Fisheries Science Center data, replenishment of the cod stock biomass has been heavily dependent on first and second year spawners for the last few years. Not only are these fish less likely to produce offspring, but the offspring they do produce are less likely to survive. Dr. Richard Langton of the Maine Department of Marine Resources research team says, "rebuilding of cod stocks from their current level could take 8 years with minimal fishing effort."
Back at Matinicus, Haddock Nubble is gone, swept smooth by years of dragging, and the 100 pound cod, the broodstock, are gone, too.
Ted Ames, was born on Vinalhaven and remembers Haddock Nubble. He has worked hard recently to protect inshore spawning grounds for cod. According to Ames the old fish, the spawners full of millions of eggs, are territorial. "The big spawners move inshore to spawn in the late spring/early summer," he says, "and it takes months for them to spawn out. The likelihood of their eggs hatching in the right conditions for survival is far greater than that of first year spawners that spawn out in a couple of weeks."
Ames, along with George Rose, the fisheries scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, believes the cod's seasonal migrations are a learned behavior and that without the older fish to guide them, the first year spawners don't come inshore. Others blame pollution for keeping the spawners offshore, but no studies have been undertaken yet to look at the effects of coastal pollution on cod larvae. Currently, inshore larval counts paint a dismal picture. Only one cod larva was collected in a 3 month survey of Penobscot Bay in 1997.
Ted doesn't believe the fishery needs to be shut down, just managed more thoughtfully. "They need to look at each phase of the cod's life cycle and manage accordingly," he says. He sees the possibility of a viable inshore fishery being re-established all along the coast of Maine. "I'd like to see state waters closed for spawning for three months in early summer to begin with, and then a hooks-only fishery with boat size limited to 30 feet. We've got to protect our broodstock the way the lobster fishery does."
John Ames, Ted's brother, fished tub trawl out of a small boat up until the late 60's. "I could see it was dying," he says, "between the draggers and the gillnetters there wasn't much left." He finally quit with the hooks and went aboard the beam trawlers out of Rockland.
The end of the inshore fishery was being predicted as far back as 85 years ago. Captain Richard J. Nunan writing in the 1913 Master Mariners Association program for their annual meeting in Gloucester said, "In the spring the haddock come inshore to spawnÉ . The haddock [gill]nets will use up the inshore fishing much more quickly than [tub] trawls... if the spawning grounds could be protected by a close time, for nets and trawls, from Plymouth to Sequin Island, Maine, inside the three mile limit, I think in a few years it would be a big benefit." The end of the inshore fishery took a little longer than Nunan expected, but it happened. And the long sought spawning closure has only recently gone into effect.
The old timers of the sea know what's going on, "but they [the council] don't pay us any mind," says John Ames. "They just see us out hauling of few traps now and figure we don't know what we're talking about."
"There's a few fishermen out there who are coming in with big catches and that's who the council listens to," says Ted. "Because of those landings they think there's still plenty of cod, but those might be last of the spawning stock.
"They say the council represents us, but it's very political. If you don't represent the big draggers out of Portland and Gloucester, it's almost impossible to get on the council. You're up against so much power, the banks, the big owners; if you went in there and tried to do anything for the little guy they'd say you weren't representing the big producers."
Many of the smaller owner-operated boats fishing close to home see the current rules as favoring bigger boats. Jen Bubar, a vocal advocate for Stonington fishermen says, "The big draggers have more mobility to work around the rolling closures, they generally get more days at sea and upward changes in quotas have come in the fall when the weather is beginning to keep smaller boats closer to home. Now there are fewer of us owner operators than ever before and we have no political voice."
On the contrary, NEFMC member Barbara Stevenson asserts, "the big boats took the biggest hit early on; they lost two-thirds of their fishing grounds. Now the smaller boats are complaining, but they've had virtually unrestricted fishing."
Bigger boats financed by investment capital getting preferential treatment is nothing new. As far back as 1600 the English had a tariff on locally caught cod, but none on cod from the heavily financed boats fishing on the Grand Bank. A study of fisheries legislation shows this trend persisting for the last 400 years. The two consistent losers have been the small fisherman and the cod. Based on the latest information we may now be on the brink of losing both.
There is one small light on the horizon. DMR researcher Sally Sherman has been doing groundfish surveys since 1992. This year experimental tows made at the mouth of the Sheepscot River are catching large numbers of small cod. "This is the most fish I've seen," says Sherman. "In June we saw 1-1.5 inch fish near shore off Reed State Park, now we're seeing 6-8 inch fish in an area where those smaller fish would have been carried by the current. We're assuming we're looking at the same cohorts."
No one can say for certain whether this abundance of small cod is widespread and a sign of a good year class coming on. But Sally Sherman is optimistic.
The rise and fall of fish populations is nothing new. A graph of Gulf of Maine cod landings since 1893 shows an erratic but balanced course that would support Stonington gillnetter Rick Bubar's assertion that "they should just leave it alone and let us fish. They told us that there weren't going to be any cod in 1987 and we were buried in cod that year. They don't know what's going on out there. The fish come and go in a natural cycle."
Other nations have dealt with declines in cod stocks with mixed reactions and mixed results. The Norwegians made drastic cuts in their cod fishery putting hundreds of people out of work at the first sign of trouble. Their conservative approach coupled with a few years of incredible spawning success brought their fishery back in four years. The Canadians on the other hand, chose to disregard information showing stock depletion. Ralph Mayo of the SARC, quoted by Mark Kurlansky, calls this "the perception problem. You see some cod and think it's the tip of the iceberg. But it could be the whole iceberg." The Canadians held off taking serious action and are now faced with a moratorium that will last 15 years at least.
There's the gamble. Do you risk the stocks by believing the highliners or do you risk the livelihoods of Maine's fishermen by believing the SARC?
The spawning closure in state waters that Ted Ames advocated for so long is finally a reality. All state waters from Lubec west to the New Hampshire border will be closed to the taking of groundfish during the months of April, May, and June. Phil Haring suggested that the NEFMC might call for emergency action from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the form of an extension of the rolling closures and starting them as early as February. In its September 23-24 meetings, however, the council declined to make any recommendations. According to Haring the council plans to get together with the advisory panel and industry people and see what they can work out.
"They started the frame work, and at the October meeting will deal with the immediate problem of getting something in place by May 1st," said Haring. "Everybody knows we have to do something."
Beyond a doubt the cost of any stock rebuilding programs will fall most heavily on Maine's fishing communities.
In addition to regulatory measures which address overfishing, a closer look at what pollution is doing to the cod's traditional spawning grounds could ease the burden on fishermen, who take the entire blame for stock depletion. And some of the cost of cod, and other fisheries, rebuilding programs might be shared by inland industries that legally dump millions of gallons of contaminated water into Maine's rivers.
Whether this will be enough to save the fishery and the fishermen remains to be seen. Fishermen claim they've made all the sacrifices they can make and still stay afloat, yet they may be asked to make more. The question of the day remains: When the fish come back, who will be there to catch them? No doubt when the fish come back some one will fish them. But like the cod, without the old timers to guide them, how successful will future fishermen be?