Cod shortage hits Cape Cod
By David Millward
Falling catches have forced the fisherman of Cape Cod to tie up their boats and turn to the American government for a bailout to save the region's fishing community from a spiral of decline.
A combination of overfishing and a predatory seal population is driving many fishermen out of the business altogether.
Permits that changed hands for £50,000 ($85,000) just five years ago are now barely worth the paper they are printed on.
"It just isn't worth going out for the fish right now," said John Tuttle, 61, a grizzled veteran boat owner. "The quotas were cut by 70 per cent last year, so it is not really viable for small boats. The stocks are very depleted. I can't predict the future but things aren't looking very good at all."
"About 15 years ago there were around 60 boats, now there is just a couple going up to the Gulf of Maine."
New England fishermen landed a quarter of the amount brought ashore only a decade ago.
The Cape got its name in 1602 after Bartholemew Gosnold found an abundance of cod off the shores of Massachusetts and the fish has been vital to the local economy ever since.
Visitors to the Massachusetts State House cannot miss The Sacred Cod, a five-foot long pine carving which has hung over the entrance to the hall since 1798 – apart from a few days when it was "cod-napped" by some students in 1933.
But the once flourishing industry which, at its peak in the 1840s, employed around 12,000 people with 1,300 vessels going into the Atlantic is now appealing for a share of the $75 million (£45 million) allotted to the nation's crisis-hit fishing industry.
The millions of dollars which Cape Cod fishermen hope to get could be used in a number of ways. Some of the cash could be spent on buying back permits to enable some fishermen to hang on until stocks recover.
Another option would be to buy back the permits and persuade some fishermen to get out of the business altogether.
"We have been through two buy backs already and they seem like the good old days," said Tom Dempsey, Policy Director of Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance. "We have taken the greatest natural resource and brought it to its knees."
The meagre haul from the prime Georges Bank means that restaurants on the coast are now forced to import cod from Iceland to serve up fish and chips.
"We are now facing a disaster. It was declared an emergency by the federal government in May," said Dr David Pierce, deputy director of state's marine fisheries division.
"There is a shortage of cod and flounder. The reasons why are not completely clear.
"Coastal waters appear to be warming up and the cod was already at the southern end of its normal range."
One potential is to make a virtue out of the now dominant dogfish which seems to have supplanted the once all-conquering cod.
"We used to turn our noses up at skate, monkfish and dogfish and throw it overboard," Mr Dempsey said.