New England

Working to rebuild the iconic New England cod fishery

Years ago, fishing boats going to the Gulf of Maine in search of cod would return with an abundance of fish. Fishermen claim the schools were once so dense, and the fish so large, that they could walk on their backs.

Today, boats return with just a small fraction of what they once caught. According to a 2017 peer-reviewed NOAA survey, cod stocks have dwindled to just 5-8 percent of what is required to sustain a healthy population. This problem was decades in the making.

A history of the cod crisis

In the 1980s and ’90s, poor management and federal subsidies enabled the growth of a fishing fleet that was already too large and investments by many fishermen in better technology to find and catch cod. Excessive fishing pressure continued and accelerated in the 2000s with overly-optimistic stock assessments. Catch levels became too high for the stocks to handle, undermining the ability to recover by causing reproductive challenges and poor growth, among other problems. As a result, the cod population and its resilience has weakened over time.

Today, decades of poor management, climate change and often slow-moving reform efforts have left the fishery in crisis. At the heart of the challenge is the government’s failure to effectively monitor what is happening to fish populations. The government’s lack of reliable information about what fishermen are catching and discarding undermines every scientific conclusion about the status of fish populations, and every management decision for the fishery. This is bad for the fish, and bad for fishermen.

Our plan for recovery

Environmental Defense Fund is working to help make sure the cod fishery doesn’t become merely a part of history. We are advocating for effective monitoring of the commercial groundfish fishery through a well-designed and cost-effective electronic monitoring program.

Getting reliable and real-time information about fishing activities is an essential piece of the solution. This information is vital to setting accurate catch limits and to providing greater certainty for fishermen, so that they can plan their business operations, and ultimately have a sustainable livelihood. Above all, reliable and accurate information forms the foundation for rebuilding trust between fishermen and regulators, and is what is needed to set the fishery up for future success.

Through these efforts, we are seeking to help fishermen weather this crisis and find a way to make sure that cod and the rest of our groundfish fishery remain a part of New England for years to come.