Lean year looms for groundfish fishery
By Patrick Whittle
Catch limits set to take effect this week will take a bite out of an industry that dates back to America’s Colonial past: New England cod.
The stricter quota on cod taken from the Gulf of Maine – a 75 percent cut from the current year – will also affect the catch of other similar fish, meaning New England fishermen and seafood dealers expect a year of meager supply and high prices for several popular fish.
The New England Fishery Management Council voted last year to reduce the total allowable Gulf of Maine cod catch limit from 1,550 to 386 metric tons starting May 1. Conservationists say the rules are needed to save cod from commercial extinction.
But Gulf of Maine cod are what fishermen call a “choke species,” as they must also stop fishing for some other species when the cod fishery shuts down. Haddock, pollock and hake – groundfish that, like cod, dwell on the ocean bottom and share space with it in markets, restaurants and seafood auctions – will also be harder to come by.
That means local sources of the fish could be scarce in the coming year, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
“Pollock is what many of our fishermen have been making money on,” Martens said. “They will be severely hamstrung by the cod issue they are facing.”
The fish will still be available in New England because of foreign sources, such as Icelandic cod, but dealers said the price for New England fish could soar in the region and beyond, even though the Atlantic cod fishery is much smaller than its Pacific cousin.
Local pollock are selling for about $4 to $7 per pound in Maine, while hake are around $6 to $8 and haddock $8 to $10. Local cod, when available at all, is more expensive.
Dealers said how much prices will rise is hard to guess. Andy Baler, a seafood distributor who owns Nantucket Fish Co. in Chatham, Cape Cod, said the ability to get local cod to consumers will be extremely limited this summer.
“As a wholesaler, the groundfishery changes are driving me out of business,” he said.
Cod has a long history in New England, where fishing for the species and other groundfish was the first Colonial industry in America. The U.S. Atlantic cod fishery was valued at about $10.5 million in 2013, with New England fishermen accounting for almost all the catch. The much larger Pacific cod fishery was valued at more than $156 million in 2013.
Federal regulators have said the cod quota cut is necessary because the level of cod spawning in the gulf is just a tiny fraction – 3 to 4 percent – of its target. Regulators say overfishing hit the stock hard, while some marine scientists add that warming oceans could be making it worse.
The gulf is one of two critical areas where East Coast fishermen search for cod, along with Georges Bank off Massachusetts.
The restrictions on groundfish might motivate some fishermen to diversify and seek other species, such as mackerel and monkfish, said Claire Fitz-Gerald, a policy analyst with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
But at Maine’s only live seafood auction, Portland Fish Exchange general manager Bert Jongerden said there might be little fishermen can do to avoid a difficult year.
“We’re all going into this year very trepidatious and cautious,” he said. “Of course we’re concerned.”