For many years the New England fishing industry has been in trouble. Certain groundfish species, particularly cod, haddock, and flounder have crashed to numbers barely sustainable. The collapse of the cod population is alarming considering this fish once dominated the marine landscape and was one of the most common marine animals. Yet decades of overfishing, destructive practices, and coastal pollution have decimated the species.
The Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) has been a commercially important fish for centuries and is the state fish of Massachusetts. The animal has three dorsal and two anal fins. The tail is angular and the head has a single projection or barbel. They feed at depths over 100 feet and can live for several decades. A distinct white lateral line is also characteristic of this species. Cod feed on many animals including clams, sea urchins, and squid. Its’ main predator is the abundant dogfish.
It also became one of the most important species for human consumption. Modern fishing techniques, along with a widespread demand, finally caused this population to crash. Battles continue between beleaguered fishermen and government regulators. Who is right in this politically charged argument? There have been many attempts to replenish the stocks from boat buyouts to rotating closures of fishing grounds. Nothing seems to be working. And the demand for fish as an important staple to American diets is increasing, putting even further pressures on the remaining populations.
For years I have been listening to and thinking about the arguments on both sides. Do we have complete and accurate data to make assumptions about codfish population structure? Are the negative effects from coastal pollution sources just as serious as overfishing? Can existing regulations save an economically important industry?
The problems facing the fishing industry are similar to many other marine environmental issues. Human populations are crowding the coastlines. These numbers have been steadily increasing and the consequent impacts have become more pronounced. Construction in fragile areas, nutrient runoff into bays and estuaries, offshore energy development, and a change in benthic marine habitats are just a few of the results of colonizing coastal areas.
If we examine successful terrestrial conservation efforts it is clear that the establishment of large, contiguous protected open spaces have allowed many species to recover from earlier declines. A similar approach to the marine environment should be established. A vigorous increase in the establishment of marine sanctuaries should be enacted which will allow the codfish and other marine species to return to sustainable levels. The current course of action is unlikely to succeed.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.