, Gloucester, MA

March 7, 2012

Cod 'crisis' hitting markets

By Nancy Gaines

These days, Gloucester supermarkets rarely, if ever, sell fresh caught cod.

The price of fresh caught cod has doubled at the wholesale level, putting it out of bounds for many retailers.

The city's landmark Gloucester House has no cod on its menu.

Fine seafood restaurants in Boston are using pollack instead of cod for fish and chips.

Others now get their supply of the 200-year-old Commonwealth of Massachusetts' iconic state fish from Norway.

Such is the state of the cod in the state of the cod.

In December, a government panel announced the exceedingly grim assessment that Gulf of Maine cod, the foundation fish for the New England day boat fleet operating primarily out of Gloucester, had collapsed since a rosy assessment in 2008 that was buttressed by fishermen's hands-on findings.

In February, the dire news of the allegedly shrunken cod supply, which drew bitter denunciation and skepticism from many fishermen, politicians and scientists, prompted the New England Fishery Management Council fish-governing body (National Marine Fisheries Service) to propose a 22 percent cutback in the allowable catch by East Coast fishing sectors next season, which begins May 1.

"Twenty-two percent will have an effect on people," said government spokesperson Maggie Mooney-Seus, "but hardly as much as the 80-90 percent decrease that might have been if we had to apply the letter of the law."

One day last week, neither of Cape Ann's Shaw's markets, nor Market Basket, nor Stop & Shop had any fresh cod, just previously frozen or none at all.

It was also not on the Gloucester House menu last week, said owner Lenny Linquata; the Gloucester House's fish and chips features haddock.

"Because it's getting harder and harder to maintain it within a reasonable price," he said, "our (profit) margins are much harder to achieve."

At the jam-packed Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, pollock was the fish of choice on the fish and chips dish, described on the menu as "Gloucester fish."

Said co-owner and chef Jeremy Sewall, "I won't say we're intentionally avoiding cod, but it gets priced out of what we're comfortable with. Besides, I think pollack is a heavily underrated fish."

Monte Rome, owner of Intershell Seafood Corp. and Market on the Gloucester waterfront, said the fish now costs about $3 a pound at auction, which a dealer then sells to retailers at $10. That's a figure that used to be $4 or 5, he said — and add to that a markup to the shopper of about 40 percent.

"Fishermen are savyy guys," said Rome. "When they can't catch cod, they say they're out there somewhere."

Rome said the fishermen tell him the problem is the warm temperature of the water, which has negatively affected the shrimp catch, too. In addition, said Rome, "we believe the fish are swimming in different paths to better feeding grounds," because of the proliferation of herring, which eat cod eggs.

Noting he specializes in the monkfish livers prized by traditional sushi chefs, Rome said, "They're teeny, too. There's a problem with the incubator."

Rome said Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, a vocal supporter of local fish and fishermen, is sending his buyers to Norway for cod because of the price. (Legal's "mostly cod" fish and chips is $17.) Berkowitz did not respond to a question on the matter.

Meanwhile, Long John Silver's, America's largest fast-food seafood chain, is ardently promoting its "new thick-cut cod basket" for $6, entailing untold tons of cod, said a spokesperson, caught in the Alaskan-Russian Eastern Bering Sea.

Nancy Gaines, a regular Times correspondent, is a longtime journalist and an editor of Boston and national publications.