This Oct. 29, 2015, file photo shows a cod that will be auctioned off, held by Codie Small, at the Portland Fish Exchange in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

One of the oldest marine industries in the United States suffered the least productive year in its recorded history last year, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Maine cod fishery stretches back centuries but has been in dire straits in recent years because of tough new management measures and a lack of fish.

The 2020 fishery brought 58,730 pounds of fish to the docks. That is more than 20,000 pounds less than 2017, which previously was the least productive year. The fishery routinely topped 10 million pounds per year in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Members of the industry said the pandemic played a role in last year’s low total because of such factors as the disruption to the broader seafood industry and the closure of restaurants.

“We had a pretty lean year,” said Jodie York, general manager of Portland Fish Exchange, a Maine auction house. “It really is in large part due to the pandemic.”

The fishery has also struggled in recent years because of cod population levels that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has described as “significantly below target levels.” The cod population off New England has suffered due to past years of overfishing and environmental change, marine regulators have said.

The trouble in Maine is reflected in the broader cod fishery around the United States. The fishery, based largely in New England, brought about 2.2 million pounds of fish to the docks in 2019, the most recent year for which nationwide statistics are available. In the 1980s, the fishery topped 100 million pounds several times.

The fish are often used to make fish and chips. Cod remains available to American consumers because of foreign sources from countries such as Iceland and Norway.

People have harvested cod off the Maine coast for centuries, and the modern industry remained one of the most lucrative marine businesses in the state as recently as the 1990s. More recently, it no longer ranks among the most valuable fisheries in the state, having been eclipsed by species such as scallops and oysters.

The pandemic affected all fisheries in the state, though some, such as lobsters, managed to keep pace with recent history in terms of value and volume of catch.

“Maine harvesters, dealers, and aquaculturists have faced an unmatched year of challenges,” Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.

Story by Patrick Whittle.

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