, Gloucester, MA

January 7, 2011

News analysis: Video spotlights context of disputed cod stock data

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

 To see Dennis Smeaton's "Tons of Cod Fish" video, referenced in this story, click here.


The scene is Triton, Newfoundland, on Dec. 14, 2010, and the picture is cod, cod, cod and more cod, as far as the eye of Dennis Smeaton's video camera could see.

Tons of Maritime Canada and New England's founding fish are packed into a tight school, bank to bank in the Triton village cove.

A veteran videographer, Smeaton and his neighbors on the dock, employees of the fish processing plant in Triton, are fascinated but hardly flabbergasted by what they're seeing.

It's the pre-Christmas in-shore arrival of hoards of cod — in a sector of the north central Atlantic that some authors and environmental groups insist are fished-out marine disaster areas — a common, though irregular occurrence.

"We've seen in many winters the small dense aggregation of cod in these basins," said John Brattey, a research scientist with the Cod Assessment Group at the Canadian Department of Fisheries in St. John, Newfoundland.

"We're not sure why they do it," he continued, noting that seals or whales might chase them in, as illustrated by a 1996 Smeaton video of a trio of humpback whales having their way with a school at the same proximity to the town dock — close enough to touch.

Even at a moment when cod stocks in the Triton section of the Atlantic are at near historic lows — about 10 percent of the size of the stocks in the 1980s — and total landings were barely 3,000 tons, events like the one Smeaton captured on video are hardly rare.

"We see it most winters," Brattey said in a telephone interview, even while emphasizing that the return of such concentrations of cod to Newfoundland and Labrador are no sign the once-great schools have been fully restored.

"The big scale is a very long way off," Brattey said, "Stocks are at such a low level."

The offshore spawning stock cod biomass for the region is estimated by the Canadian government's 2010 trawl survey to be about 150,000 tons — hundreds of millions of fish — while the inshore stock biomass, including the mass of cod seen in the video, is but a fraction of that amount.

By contrast, in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, stocks of cod are much stronger and closer to the recognized ideal state of sustainability.

But as the Smeaton video does with pictures — and Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz intends to do with a banquet, featuring cod cheeks and serving nothing but "blacklisted" fish at his Park Square, Boston, restaurant on Jan. 24 — debate remains fierce and scientific disagreement intense over how much fish is out there, and what is a responsible fisheries policy.

The biomass estimate of roughly 150,000 tons of cod in Canadian waters off Newfoundland and the Smeaton video create a context for what "depleted" can means in relative terms for some of the world's historically richest ocean waters.

And it's sparked the push back by Berkowitz against the insistence of some scientists and seafood "eco-labelers" that cod are too fragile a species to be served on responsible tables — or that harvesting causes unacceptable physical harm to the ocean floor.

The case against fishing — or for less fishing — leads directly into the pivotal ocean-food battle centered on the policies of the Obama administration, whose "catch share" fishery management encourages fishermen to buy, sell or trade "shares" of a government-set catch for each stock, as within a commodities market. The result to date has been to consolidate control of fisheries into the hands of fewer, bigger, stronger businesses, while driving out smaller, independent fishermen who don't have the capital to keep up.

This is a fight between the fishery policy makers led by political activist-scientist Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the industry — fishermen and shoreside elements such as Legal Sea Foods, which employs 4,000 people in 31 restaurants and uses 100 tons of fish a week.

The justification for the conversion of fisheries into limited access commodity trading markets is the claim that the old way of fishing has failed, demonstrated by the imminent vanishing of the prized food fishes.

That justification is backed by ahandful of peer-reviewed scientific papers, all linked to Lubchenco and the Environmental Defense Fund or the Pew Enviroment Group, which cross-credential her as linchpin of the movement.

Together, these studies have succeeded in creating the vague, general conclusion that U.S. fisheries policy has failed to rein in alleged overfishing.

One from 2003 in Nature Magazine predicted "a global collapse of fish species by 2048." Another, by three researchers — including Lubchenco's brother-in-law, Stephen D. Gaines, a power at the University of California at Santa Barbara with close financial connections to the Monterey Bay Aquarium — links to the earlier articles of impending oceanic dystopia.

The aquarium publishes the influential Seafood Watch, which judges the relative environmental responsibility of eating different kinds of fish. Cod is a staple of the small inshore fleet of Gloucester and the offshore boats of New Bedford, Maine, and southern New England, which have been surprised at how the stocks have pulsed back in the past few years.

But to the Lubchenco allies behind Seafood Watch, as well as the other eco-labelers, cod is still viewed as a no-no.

The naysaying side of the scientific and environmental sectors are by no means unchallenged.

A powerful counterforce by himself is Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington.

In 2006, he wrote a critique of the body of science that generally foretold the emptying of the oceans save for jellyfish.

His essay, titled "Faith-based Fisheries," compared the rise of zealous anti-fishing science with the rise and demise of the Bush administration's theory of "intelligent design" as an alternative to natural selection.

Hilborn was most piqued at the supposed paradigms of skepticism and honest curiosity — peer-based magazines Science and Nature, and The New York Times and Washington Post — for uncritically accepting what he called agenda-driven science.

This past November, during a lecture on the Washington campus, Hilborn considered the implications of not fishing at all. According to a report in the Nov. 2, Seattle-based, he focused on the need for finding the right balance in the mix of sources of protein.

If the antifishing movement succeeded, Hilborn said, "we would need five times the world's present rainforest area to make up for the protein by grazing.

"My point is not (that) we're going to get a lot more protein for the world from fish," he wrote, "but we shouldn't try to decrease the catch because there will be serious consequences on land."

Roger Berkowitz's science is culinary. He has chosen a high-profile evening in Boston to cook with the fish the public is advised to shun if they are to remain responsible stewards of the earth.

The reason: "There's no scientific basis," he told the Times, "for what they are saying."

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at