Other Environmental Themes

An Ocean Without Cod

The waters off New England once teemed with millions of cod, a treasure that helped convert the region into an economic powerhouse centuries ago. Legend has it that cod was once so plentiful that people could literally scoop them from the ocean using buckets.

But all that has changed. By the 1990s, populations of cod, haddock, flounder, and other "groundfish" dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded, signaling the collapse of famed Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine fisheries—just one piece of a dismal pattern. According to a 2004 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study, the global cod catch has dropped 70% in the past 30 years, mainly due to overfishing and illegal fishing. The Grand Banks fishery off Canada's east coast was closed to fishing 1995, but cod have not yet returned. The WWF warns that the world's cod stocks could effectively disappear in 15 years.

Hopes of a revival in New England were dashed by the latest assessment from the federal government: Cod populations on Georges Bank plummeted 25% between 2001 and 2005. Stocks now stand at just 10% the minimum level deemed sustainable. Gulf of Maine stocks suffered a similar drop-off.

"How could this once abundant fish become so imperiled?" ask Priscilla Brooks and Roger Fleming of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). "The answer is simple. Fisherman have fished cod at unsustainable levels for over 25 years," often exceeding the allowable rate many times over. Drastic steps are now needed, Brooks says, since the "half-measures" implemented to date—such as days-at-sea restrictions and trip limits—have slowed, but not halted, the fall of the region's prized fisheries.

A coalition of environmental groups led by CLF is working to avert this incipient disaster. After filing lawsuits that prompted unprecedented closures of fisheries, these groups are now seeking to ensure that the federal government manages the fisheries responsibly and effectively. "Our goal is to reduce pressure on cod and hope it responds positively," says Brooks. "Once we can get stocks to come back up, the trick then will be to establish sustainable fishing practices so we don't drive them back down again."