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Cape, Hold the Cod

By: Abby Yeomans, Kendall Intern, Northeastern University

The North Atlantic Cod population is at a fraction of what it used to be, and it has been for a while. While they are making incremental progress in their numbers, there is still much work to be done. Many North Atlantic water regions are suffering, especially the Gulf of Maine. With the population dwindling in the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod fishermen and fishermen all along the eastern coast of New England are left with no choice but to look for other species of fish to catch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated in 2014 that the “spawning population was at its lowest point in the history of the study of the fish.” What was once Cape Cod’s namesake, most common profession, and source of wealth is now gone, leaving behind unemployed Cod fishermen and a loss of identity for the land that was once known for its plentiful Cod.

The North Atlantic Cod population has been steadily declining since Europeans first came to New England in the 17 th century. When they first came, cod were plentiful, so plentiful that they called the land they settled on Cape Cod. Since then, they regularly fished the well-populated water. When the fishing industry became commercialized, that was when the trouble started. Cod were caught more rapidly than they could reproduce, and the population began decreasing at a steady rate. There was a huge demand for fish in the 1970-90s, which is when commercial fishing really took off. Due to the increase in demand for fish, and because it was pre-strict fishing regulations, Cod were almost fished to extinction. Atlantic Cod are much worse off than their other fellow ground fish species due to declining mortality rates of spawning fish. Not only is the adult population being overfished, but young fish are dying for various reasons while simultaneously being fished. If the population of young fish is overestimated and consequently overfished, it could be the collapse of an entire stock because young fish are the backbone of a population. Additionally, in a recent study conducted by Pershing et al, it was found that between 2004 and 2013 temperatures in the Gulf of Maine increased by .3%, three times as high as other ocean temperatures around the world. Cod cannot survive in warmer water, and since their population is already so low, it puts them even more at risk to be endangered.

Often when someone orders cod at a restaurant on Cape Cod, it probably doesn’t come from Cape Cod waters, or possibly even Gulf of Maine waters. It is becoming increasingly common to bring in Cod from the gulfs surrounding Iceland, because stocks are much healthier there. It seems like an identity crisis that Cape Cod can’t serve its own namesake fish from its waters anymore. In an interview with NPR, restaurant owner John Pontius explains that since there is virtually no market for locally caught Cod, if he wants to serve it on the menu he has to import it from Iceland. “Everybody up and down the road has got the same cod from Iceland on their menu right now. If it's on the menu, it's more than likely Icelandic,” he said.

As result of the ever-dwindling Cod stocks, the Division of Marine Fisheries has stepped in and started to conduct extensive surveys in the waters of the Gulf of Maine to try and determine what levels the stocks are at and try to determine the next steps to rectify stock levels. There are already regulations on vulnerable and endangered fish species that occupy the ocean surrounding Cape Cod, and scientists are looking to either enforce full-on bans or stricter regulations. Fishermen are already struggling to catch enough cod to meet the limits of the current restrictions. By enforcing even stricter regulations, it will give Cod a better chance of coming back but would almost certainly make the cod industry nearly completely profitless.

In recent years, a number of fishing organizations and alliances have pledged to incorporate sustainable fish into their product offering, Red's Best being one of them. Red's sources from local fishermen and guarantees to buy anything fishermen bring in that day. Part of their mission is to normalize use of underutilized species and even offer prepared meals at their location in Boston Public Market. To increase traceability, they implemented a state-of-the-art tracking system that allows consumers to trace where exactly their seafood came from using a QR code. They have access to the boat name and town the seafood comes from.

There are many ways to help out our fishermen and support the North Atlantic Cod stocks. Through buying and spreading the word about underutilized fish species, you're not only supporting local fishermen, but relieving pressure off the Cod population. Buying through a sustainable market like Red’s Best ensures that you are buying local, fresh, and sustainable! The most important thing to do is start spreading the word. Most tourists and seafood lovers of New England don’t know the current state of the North Atlantic Cod stocks or other well known species popular in restaurants. By simply talking to other people about these issues, recognition will increase and willingness to try other species will also likely increase.

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