Last Wednesday marked a turning point for the New England fishing community when the New England Fishery Management Council approved deep cuts to the cod quota that are expected to put many fishermen out of business. “That’s it. I’m all done. The boat’s going up for sale,” said Gloucester fisherman Paul Vitale in response to the news. There’s no escaping the fact that tough times are ahead for this historic fishing community.
New England was built on cod. They even named a cape after it. “People settled this area because of the bountiful fish stocks that they found here,” says GMRI’s Jen Levin. From Portland to Gloucester, Cape Cod to New Bedford, waterfront communities prospered thanks to abundant fish populations. In those early days, fish seemed endless, and fishing wasn’t regulated. As fishing technology developed, we put increasing pressure on our fish stocks. In the mid-20th century, huge factory trawlers from as far away as Russia fished the seas for all they were worth. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, when faced with a near collapse of the fishery, did we wise up to the real impact of human greed. Strict fishery management began, and New England finally adopted a catch share management program in 2010. Soon after, cod seemed to be rebounding to healthy levels.
Last year, long suffering New England fishermen were dealt a cruel blow. Cod populations that just one year before had been rapidly growing, suddenly fell. No one could explain it, but management was required to severely reduce quota. Although not their fault, fishermen would suffer. The fact is, this week’s news has been a long time coming. Just as fishermen began managing the resource in a sustainable way, another culprit - climate change - wreaked havoc on fish stocks as cod swam north in response to warming ocean temperatures.
As the New England fishing community faces a grim reality, it’s important that we stick by our fishermen. Now is the time to get acquainted with cod’s close cousins, haddock and pollock, and create a market for what these fishermen are still able to catch. “It will be tough for the next few years,” said Michael Castigliego of Somerset, MA. “But we’ll get through it. It should be better three or four years from now. At least, that’s what we hope.” If we want our traditional working waterfronts to endure, let’s remember on the long road ahead that our independent fishermen are a vital part of our food system.