There’s long been an undercurrent of mistrust between fishermen who make their livelihoods from the Gulf of Maine and the scientists whose surveys and calculations determine the amount of fish they can catch.
That, in part, is because it can seem as if fishermen and scientists are talking about two different Gulfs of Maine when they discuss the size of the cod population.
Scientists document a groundfish stock in perpetual decline with an outlook that doesn’t seem to have changed much in response to increasingly restrictive limits on the amount fishermen can catch. They note a species that has struggled to recover after more than a century of overfishing and now faces the added challenge of rebuilding in an area of the ocean that’s warming faster than 99 percent of the rest of the world’s oceans. Indeed, researchers from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the University of Maine and elsewhere have found that warming waters reduce the number of new cod produced by spawning females and reduce the likelihood that young fish will survive to adulthood.
Fishermen, meanwhile, report something different.
“This is uncalled for,” Joseph Orlando, a cod fisherman who fishes off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, told NPR in 2014 after regulators cut the Gulf of Maine cod fishing season short that year. “There’s more codfish out there. There’s always been.”
The official stock assessment for cod shows that the species is at 3-4 percent of the level where it should be in order to be considered sustainable, and that quantities of spawning cod in 2014 — a statistic key to the species’ future — were a fraction of what they were in 2007. Catch limits have remained correspondingly low: This year, commercial fishermen can fish up to 280 metric tons of the Gulf of Maine groundfish. By comparison, New England fishermen landed more than 40,000 metric tons each year on average during the 1980s, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But some fishermen say scientists have long underestimated the size of the cod population.
“The science has to catch up with what’s really out there,” fisherman Brian Pearce, who is based at Portland Harbor, recently told the Bangor Daily News’ Jake Bleiberg. “It seems like the stock is rebuilding faster than the government believes it is.”
The mistrust and divergent perceptions of the state of the ocean are the reason it’s promising to see scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a division of the nation’s fisheries regulator, looking to fishermen to help them develop a more detailed picture of the cod population. Scientists next year plan to outfit fishermen’s boats with surveying equipment and use the data they collect as part of the process of setting fish quotas.
Fisheries regulation is imperfect for a number of reasons. One is that regulators craft uniform rules and catch limits that apply to vast areas of the ocean — such as the entire Gulf of Maine. But such vast areas don’t operate as a single, uniform ecosystem. That’s why fishermen in Gloucester are more likely to report plentiful stocks of cod while fishermen in Down East Maine see very few.
Regulators should be able to act on a local, rather than regional, scale in managing the comebacks of overfished species such as cod. This approach would require greater participation by fishermen — who have a stake in a species’ future success — in supplying information to regulators so they can determine reasonable catch levels in their areas and when fishing should stop.
The Northeast Fisheries Science Center has collaborated with fishermen before in an effort to better survey the Gulf of Maine cod population. More than a decade ago, the center undertook an industry-based resource survey. While it was labor-intensive, it proved useful as a way to help scientists understand the geographical distribution of the cod population.
It’s our hope that the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s collaboration with Gulf of Maine fishermen represents an early step toward a more nuanced, participatory and successful management structure for fisheries in a diverse Gulf of Maine — a structure in which fishermen can have more faith.