Cod and science vs. anecdote


Adapted and expanded from an item in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in

The decline of cod, presumably New England’s most famous fish, is a prime example of why we need government oversight of certain species. In the “tragedy of the commons,’’ fishermen will almost always take the short view and maximize profits by taking out of the sea as many fish as they can as fast as they can.

For years fishermen have complained that federal rules aimed at preserving cod  stocks through fishing bans or tight limits on catches are based on faulty science and conflict with fishermen’s (anecdotally based) observations. Well, that science was pretty damn good but Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, in response to complaints from the industry, much of which is based in Gloucester, ordered the state to do its own survey.

The chief finding: Cod populations have been plunging in the Gulf of Maine, with stocks down about 80 percent from a decade ago. For political reasons, Mr. Baker would have preferred a more upbeat report that avoided offending a local industry as he goes into a re-election campaign next year.

The fish are disappearing, partly from overfishing and, probably, partly from global warming. (Consumers can help by not ordering cod.) Also perhaps playing a big role  is the reduction in the species' food supply, suggests my businessman friend Stephen Key, who has been in various parts of the food sector for years.  All of that increased commercial fishing for bunker/menhaden (used for fish-oil pills etc.), must have an impact, and not just on cod.

The fact is that there are times when only government can save species. Consider the role of the Feds, under President Theodore Roosevelt, in stopping what seemed to be the imminent extinction of the American bison (aka buffalo) by trophy and meat hunters.