Casting Comments: Remember Cod?

Posted on May 15, 2008 by Ted Venker, TIDE

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

This is a remarkably durable statement, forged upon mankind’s unfailing ability to bend, twist and forget critical lessons from the past out of the firm conviction that “it’s different this time.”
The people and eras may be different, but we rarely miss the opportunity to make the same types of mistakes that yield the exact same results. It holds as true for geopolitical conflicts through the centuries as it does for real estate bubbles and corporate scandals across decades. From the President of the United States to the president of the local PTA, those who ignore history are indeed doomed to repeat it.
In the comparatively small world of fish and fishing, that saying rings exceptionally clear and true, and one need look no further than the history of Atlantic cod to see the bones of almost every fishery management issue under debate today.
Atlantic cod has drifted into a fisheries management graveyard for most of the past 40 years after a catastrophic fall littered with blunders and greed. In 1497, rumors of John Cabot’s men catching cod in weighted baskets lowered into the water helped lure settlers to the New World. In 1838, a 180-pounder was caught on Georges Bank. In 1895, a six-foot cod weighing 211 pounds was hauled in off the coast of Massachusetts.
Cod made immense fortunes not just for individuals but for entire nations, giving rise to the superpowers of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the foundation for economies and communities on a local and global scale. It is generally regarded as the fish that changed human history.
It is essentially gone now, and there is some doubt that it will ever fully return. Its habitat of nooks and crannies in bottom structure has been smashed flat by decades of intense trawling with rockhoppers and tickler chains. It is possible that the vacuum created by its almost total removal from the environment has been filled by other species so that it cannot ever return to its former abundance. The fish that changed human history has paid quite a price for its generosity.
The tragic story of how cod traveled a path from almost limitless abundance to complete decimation is well-documented in the book, “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky. In fact, “Cod” should be required reading for anyone interested in the management of fish today, as there is no clearer demonstration that focusing on anything other than the health of the resource is the first step to ensuring its demise.
There will, of course, be distinct differences between cod and any other fish species that would make direct comparisons impossible. However, present-day fishery managers would likely recognize some of the arguments and circumstances that were cited to allow an already ailing cod stock to descend completely into obscurity in the latter half of the 20th century.
Among the fatal mistakes was slow recognition of the impact of technology, an avowed distrust of the science showing stock declines, over-emphasis on tradition and the “sanctity” of coastal fishing communities, and a bureaucratic tendency to cave in to political pressure to avoid infuriating a vocal sector of special interests with a financial stake in the fishery.
Kurlansky writes that the end came in 1994, “just three years short of the 500-year anniversary of Cabot’s men scooping up cod in baskets” with moratoriums banning the harvest of a fish declared commercially extinct.
What might eventually come next for cod is something that CCA has fought against with different species for three decades. If and when cod make a comeback, the political pressure to maintain the necessary regulations until the stocks have returned to historic levels will be unbearable. Kurlansky interviewed fishery scientists who acknowledged the “perception problem” they were likely to face with a cod recovery. If reports come back that 15,000 cod were found on a particular bank, they said, a cry will go up that cod are back. No one will remember that the same area had 1.2 million fish decades ago.
Cod is a vivid reminder that every debate over the future of a fish species has to have, at its core, the health of that resource and its restoration to historic abundance. To do otherwise is to simply buy time, turn a blind eye to the future and hope for a miracle. Cod is what happens when fishermen come first and fish are managed for all the wrong reasons.
You can hear the drumbeat of history trying to repeat itself today in the debates over a number of key fisheries: a dismissal of the science, intense outcry against conservation measures from parties with a financial stake in the fishery, a lack of political will to do what is necessary for the health of the resource and a tremendous push to exploit any recovery before it is complete.
Today, a host of troubled fisheries are not quite in the same boat as cod, but the chorus to manage them for all the wrong reasons is just as loud. Perhaps the most striking and frightening similarity between those singing the chorus today and 30 years ago is, as Kurlansky writes, the “almost pathological denial” that they had anything to do with the demise of the fish in the first place. In its place is a firm conviction that other factors out of their control are to blame.
Will we allow history to repeat itself? Past results instill no confidence that we will have the wisdom to prevent it, but awareness is the first step. Spend a few hours reading “Cod” and see if anything sounds familiar the next time you encounter a debate in a newspaper article or on the Internet over the need for modern fisheries management to be more “flexible.”
The fish that changed human history may very well hold the key to changing the future of how we manage our marine resources. We can’t afford to ignore its history.

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