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