Cod’s Many Places – NAMA Newsletter August 2010

Over the past year, our work with the Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery (CSF) has stirred up some controversy. The CSF has been delivering a lot of cod to the shareholders. Considering all the news about cod we are not surprised by all the questions.

In fact, the questions have provided us with a chance to talk about a concept NAMA and many fishermen and fishing community organizations we have been working with have been advocating for in quite a few years: finer scale management of fisheries.

What does that mean, you ask?
The ocean is not one homogeneous body of water. There are distinct ecosystems within its ecosystems. And, many species of fish actually exist as numerous sub-populations rather than one uber stock.

Emerging science is showing us that cod in the Gulf of Maine live in discrete sub-populations and those are composed of numerous smaller spawning groups that prefer their own specific spawning grounds. There is Gulf of Maine cod, which federal managers recognize and manage as one big stock spread more or less evenly over the whole area; but if we look more closely, for example, at the coastal area between Cape Ann and the Bay of Fundy in the Gulf of Maine we find that scientists have identified the Western sub-population, the Midcoast sub-population, the Eastern sub-population, and the Bay of Fundy sub-population, all of which stay pretty much to themselves. But managers have chosen to pile all sub-populations of the Gulf of Maine into one averaged stock called GOM Cod. This is just what we know about the Gulf of Maine. Georges Bank cod is another stock recognized by management and it likely has a similar story of finer scale sub-populations and spawning groups. And, considering a species as a whole when deciding whether it is sustainable to guide consumers does not work well in this context.  For example, many sustainable seafood ratings and advocacy efforts refer to cod as Atlantic Cod, which once again bunches all the distinct sub-populations together. Suggesting Atlantic Cod as a whole is either overfished or recovered is meaningless when you look more closely at the distinct populations of the species.

Consolidating separate populations into one large stock poses some major issues, amongst them whether or not we are using the right strategies for ensuring the recovery and health of all the distinct groupings of cod.

Each of the sub-populations should require special management measures based on the condition of the population and the unique ecosystem within which they live. One sub-population of cod can be healthy while another might not be.

According to the latest information from fisheries managers, the Gulf of Maine cod is no longer overfished. But they don’t make a distinction between the sub-populations of cod within the Gulf of Maine. What we do know based on what we see being landed, is that the Western Gulf of Maine sub-population – which is where fishermen for the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF fish – is much healthier than the Eastern Gulf of Maine where fishermen for the Community Fish CSF fish. That’s why the fishermen from New Hampshire and Cape Ann area are seeing such a surge in the population when fishermen from Mid-coast and Downeast Maine, for example, are seeing hardly any.

It’s hard to know why these sub-populations are recovering at different paces. It appears one sub-population’s health is independent of the other. Does the historic chlorinated waste coming from the pulp and paper mills in Maine have something to do with the slow recovery there? Does the reduction in fishing boats on Cape Ann have something to do with the health of the populations there? It’s hard to know because we haven’t been caring for the sub-populations as we should.

Don’t get me wrong… just because we are seeing a resurgence of one sub-population of cod we don’t think this ecosystem and all its sub-populations of cod or any other animals are out of the woods, yet. The point we are trying to make is if we want to do it right, we have to address the uniqueness of each area for each animal. Otherwise we’ll keep repeating the vicious cycle of boom and bust. And, the most visible target we have to blame it all on are the fishermen when in fact its our collective understanding and approach to fisheries management that may be at fault.

When it comes to how the fishermen operate, the task at hand now is to make sure the places where the Gulf of Maine cod is healthy never become overfished again. That’s why the right marketing strategies, such as Community Supported Fisheries, that allow fishermen to get the most value out of catching a biologically sensible amount of fish is imperative to ensuring we don’t go back to relying on volume but rather relying on getting a fair price to make ends meet for the shore-based fishermen.

Other species, like herring, have distinctly separate spawning stock biomasses that appear to live in a symbiotic relationship making the overall health of one dependent on other nearby ones.

In her piece Fisheries Management Relocalized Ellen Tyler shares her first hand account of bumping into the cod question as a Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF shareholder.

One step forward toward changing policies to better reflect this issue is to make sure we have the right scale, diversity and distribution of our ports and their fleets of fishing boats. Please take a moment and take action today by signing a petition to address the issue of fleet diversity and the need for the fleet to match the diversity we see in the ocean.

If you want to dig deeper into finer scale, area based management and the idea of cod sub-populations in the Gulf of Maine, you should check out the work of MacArthur Fellow Ted Ames, a fisherman, scholar and one of the founders of the Penobscot East Resource Center. He has recently published a new paper that explains how and why cod should be managed locally. In addition, check out the latest paper by fisheries economist James Wilson and Professor of Oceanography, Marine Biology and Marine Policy, Robert Steneck, both from the University of Maine.

Fisheries Management Relocalized – Tales from a Traveling CSF Shareholder

By Ellen Parry Tyler
MS Candidate Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Tufts University; And, NAMA Intern

As a local foodie interested in supporting community based food systems, one of my first investments moving to the Bay State was to purchase a share in a Community Supported Fishery (CSF).  Operating much the same way that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares do, members in a community participate by investing in a “share” or portion of a boat’s total catch, sharing some of the risk inherent in the trade, and enjoying the freshest, best tasting seafood around.  Since moving to MA, I have come to learn how to cook with local and seasonally available fish species firsthand through my weekly share of Cape Ann’s Fresh Catch CSF.   Moving to Maine for the summer, I looked forward to showing off some of my new recipes, but quickly learned that the Gulf of Maine is not a uniform ecosystem, and what fishermen are catching changes based on very local situations.  These observations have profound implications for regional fisheries management decisions, which are currently applied like a blanket, uniform across whole regions.

In Massachusetts, more often than not, my CSF share delivered Cod.

Drawing on the memory of near collapse of the Gulf of Maine cod fishery in the 1990s, I was tepid about filleting and eating these beautiful creatures; but Steve Parkes, my CSF coordinator, assured me that the cod is coming back.  “We did what we were supposed to do,” he said, referring to a scaling back of the amount of cod caught from the Northwest Atlantic, “and the fish came back!  This is a story of success.”  Indeed, this success is apparent in my CSF share, where I see that fishermen are catching more cod than any other fish, and it is reflected in a New England Fishery Management Council News Release (June 25,2010) which verified: “Gulf of Maine cod is no longer overfished and is at a stock size that has not been seen in 30 years.”  But what both reports miss is that the cod stocks are not rebuilding at the same rate, or in the same way throughout their historical range.  Instead, stocks are showing up only in distinct areas, particularly in the western Gulf of Maine where the fishermen who supply Cape Ann Fresh Catch happen to be fishing.

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New England Fishery Management Council Update: Time is of the Essence

Sign the Petition That Asserts: Who Fishes Matters!

By Brett Tolley
NAMA Community Organizer

and Sean Sullivan
NAMA Marketing, Development and Outreach Associate

As more and more stories pour in about groundfish quota allocations being sold and/or transferred and/or accumulated, the news, and the outlook, seems grim. We all knew consolidation was an unwritten objective for the new sector management plan adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), but do we really want a monolithic fleet controlled by large corporations or foreign banks and the demise of our traditional shore-based fleet? It happened in the Surf Clam/Ocean Quahog fishery in the Mid-Atlantic region and all the signs are pointing in the same direction for the Northeast groundfish fishery.

The economics are simple. Recent reports indicate that Cod quota is being leased for $1.50/lb landed fish and permits being sold outright for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cod prices vary seasonally from $1/lb to $3/lb at auction with $2/lb the norm. For fishermen, leasing quota represents an additional fixed cost of 30-100% of their gross income. For most small-scale fishermen struggling with small allocations to begin with, leasing quota or buying permits would be financial suicide (even if they could afford them or find a bank crazy enough to finance such a purchase).  And conversely, leasing their quota to someone else provides a steady paycheck only slightly less than they could make fishing – without the risk. A Devil’s bargain if ever there were one: fish and eke out a living on a small allocation or give up the job you love.