, Gloucester, MA

February 14, 2013

Letter: Facing up to harsh fish stock realities

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — To the editor:

Reading coverage in the Gloucester Daily Times and elsewhere, it seems clear that fish stocks, especially cod, are critically low and have been declining for some time. This is tragic.

Fishing is the heart and soul of Gloucester. It is easy to sympathize with fishermen with mouths to feed and mortgages and loans to pay. There is the wonderful image of the independent fisherman battling the elements in a dangerous environment. But the hard fact is we are at risk of losing the resource for a long time, if not forever.

Gloucester is not alone. Cod fishing has been banned off Newfoundland by the Canadian government after four centuries of sustainable harvests. Between 1990 and 1994, the total cod population plummeted by more than 99 percent. There is a fear that it may never recover, or, at best, slowly recover over many years. It was caused by increasing local and foreign fleets all equipped with new fish finding technology.

Much of the small boat fisheries of Africa have been wiped out by foreign fleets. Countries were too weak to prevent it. The worst example is Somalia, where otherwise idle fishing boats were used for piracy. Another example is the collapse of the California sardine industry in the 1940s. Those fish have never returned.

On a more positive note, Norway caught its decline in time to save its large cod and salmon industry with severe but temporary restrictions.

In Gloucester we have been hearing for some time that there are lots of fish out there, that fishing industry hardships have been caused by government regulation and especially catch shares. Interestingly, catch shares has proved successful in Alaska and the West and Gulf coasts by stabilizing and even increasing fish stocks and incomes. It looks like it came too late for the Northeast fisheries to stem the decline.

One gets quite a different picture from articles in the NY Times and especially one in Business Week magazine. There were stories of illegal catches being unloaded at night bringing in a strong federal crackdown. Local publicity led public opinion into a strong political reaction and enforcement was compromised.

Of course, the situation is complex. There may be other causes of fisheries’ decline, such as warmer ocean temperatures, ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric CO2, pollution, and the loss of wetlands as fish fry nurseries.

But our best bet for now is to learn and respect other points of view with regard to fisheries, to endure a period of painful restrictions, and hope it is not too late to save the resource.

Perhaps we could then look forward to sustainable fishing and an extension of Gloucester’s glorious past.