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Counting Fish | Estimating the Gulf of Maine's Fish Population

After a while, the fish take on personalities. Mackerel are sporty, with oil-sheen sides and black racing stripes on their backs. They feel firm and rubbery in your hand, like yuppie dog toys. Herring are like money, pouring down the conveyor belt in piles of shiny silver. Dogfish are small sharks with evil-cat eyes that glint yellow or green in the light. Cod are like hogs, gluttonous and catholic in their tastes. Haddock have faces like young Disney protagonists: wide eyes, button noses, soft emotive lips. They look like boys turned into fish by some sea hag, surprised to have been caught in our net. Monkfish are the baddies from the same flick, living bear traps waiting to snap shut on the unwary.

One night, the unwary is Nikolai Klibansky, whose finger is seized by a huge monkfish that was playing possum on us. With Klibansky attempting to extricate his finger from the razor jaws, I jab the white plastic handle of a fillet knife into the jaws to pry them open. Instead, the monkfish seizes the handle, yanks it away from me, and thrashes around the table, slashing with the blade.

The whole episode leaves me with a grudging respect for monkfish, the feel-good antipode to cod. A trash fish in the 1970s, then a high-priced and badly overfished delicacy in the 1980s–90s, it became carefully managed, and the population was declared fully rebuilt in 2008. This is the face of successful fisheries management, and what a face it is.

[ May 6 ]
Bigelow Bight
A slow night at last! The belly of our net has been gutted like a fish by a snag that somehow eluded the sonar. Hours of repairs await Martyn-Fisher and his team. I can’t say I’m sorry for the break. We linger over lobster macaroni in the galley, catch a few innings of the Red Sox on the satellite television. I ask Mike Palmer to tell me the cod story. He cracks open his laptop—turns out he has a presentation prepared for anyone who cares to listen. As our coffee mugs skitter across the swaying table, he explains how in 2006, Gloucester fishermen began catching massive amounts of cod, and their attitude toward NOAA softened. “Whatever they’ve done to this point appears to be successful,” one oldtimer told the Gloucester Times. “This is the biggest run of cod I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Then NOAA’s 2007 spring survey caught more cod than ever before in its history, and the 2008 survey was nearly as good. All that data fed into the 2008 cod assessment, which elicited a round of hallelujahs along the New England coast. The assessment estimated a spawning-stock biomass of 33,877 metric tons, the highest in decades. “Everything was rosy,” Palmer says. “Everything was adding up.” The fishing industry’s sacrifices were paying off, everyone believed; cod would soon be fully recovered, and New England would once again be minting money in the seas.

“Then,” Palmer continues, “we did a benchmark assessment in 2011, and the bottom fell out.” He was in charge of that assessment, which used a more sophisticated model. Instead of a surging biomass of 33,877 metric tons of cod, it estimated a pathetic 11,868 for the entire Gulf—near collapse. Instead of the anticipated quota of around 8,551 metric tons, the controversial assessment would’ve limited the 2012 catch to just a fraction of that, 1,000 mt.

That’s when New England flipped out. The industry, which was seeing no dropoff, concluded that NOAA had lost its marbles—a position shared by its representatives. “This GOM [Gulf of Maine] cod situation is further proof that the entire research and data process needs to be completely overhauled,” Senator John Kerry wrote to NOAA.

So Palmer decided to pick through those 2007 and 2008 surveys that had found so many cod. What he saw stunned him. As in other years, most tows on the 2007 survey yielded no cod or just a handful of fish. And then, on April 24, on Stellwagen Bank, the net came up with 800 cod, the most ever seen in 44 years of surveys. The pattern repeated in 2008: Only three tows produced more than 10 cod. One netted 15, another 42, and the other caught 578. “Should’ve been a red flag,” Palmer says.

The old assessment model had taken those two huge tows at face value, but Palmer’s new model gave less weight to freakish outliers, positive or negative. That, along with the low cod numbers seen on the 2009, 2010, and 2011 surveys, was behind the massive downgrade.

Still, the mystery remained: How could NOAA’s estimates be so at odds with what the fishermen were seeing? A clue arrived in the spring of 2012, when one of Palmer’s colleagues noticed that Stellwagen Bank had experienced a population explosion of sand lance starting in 2006. Sand lance like to hide in sandy bottomland, which makes Stellwagen Bank one of their favorite places on earth, and,cod love to eat sand lance: “He came to me and asked, ‘Is there any potential that what we’re seeing in the fishing industry is being driven by sand lance abundance?’”

Palmer didn’t know, so he analyzed where fishermen were catching their cod. That result was his next shock: Almost half of the cod landings for the entire Gulf of Maine were coming from a tiny area on the northern tip of Stellwagen Bank, not two hours’ steam from Gloucester—the exact location of NOAA’s massive tows in 2007 and 2008. “They were all on Stellwagen Bank,” Palmer marvels. “Right where the sand lance were, right where our surveys were finding all the cod.”

Instead of a cod recovery in the Gulf of Maine, there had been a tragedy: a once-in-a-generation blowout of sand lance on Stellwagen Bank, right in front of Gloucester’s nose, causing an extraordinary percentage of the remaining cod to gather themselves tightly in that one spot, where a few lucky fishermen had easily scooped them up, leaving the rest of the Gulf bare.

Sadly, the past year has played out just as Mike Palmer’s 2011 assessment would have predicted. Both NOAA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found fewer cod during their surveys than ever before, and even fishermen struggled to find fish. That didn’t stop Massachusetts’ attorney general, Martha Coakley, from calling the new quota “a death sentence for the Massachusetts fishing industry,” when she filed suit in federal court against NOAA, arguing that “the federal government has shown a callous disregard for the well-being of Massachusetts fishing families.” But no rhetoric can disguise the stark reality: New England’s 500-year run of cod is over.

[ May 7 ]

Near the Isles of Shoals, the fog finds us. We glide through a wet, white world, blowing our foghorn every two minutes, white lobster floats ghosting past, seagulls calling behind the boat like lost souls. Thousands of fishermen out of Portsmouth and Gloucester have vanished in such conditions. It was always a knife-edge existence, yet for centuries the fishing was so fine that it kept luring us back.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

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