Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Where Have All the Codfish Gone?

For at least one boat in the Chatham fleet, July 5 was a good day. We watched it dock and unload its catch at the Chatham Fish Pier late that Sunday afternoon. The crew came home with a considerable amount of cod. But I have been going to Cape Cod since the ’60s, and this is not the catch I remember as a kid, or even a decade ago. These cod were smaller and made up less than half of what was unloaded — most of the remainder was dogfish.

Dogfish, a species of shark, were rarely seen in the past — certainly not when cod were longlined. The Pier Host on duty explained that in longlining some 4500 hooks, spaced 6 feet apart, would each be baited by hand.  As soon as the line was set out, the fishermen would begin to haul in the catch. Each fish was alive and fresh, and the small fish could be thrown back. This was how our host used to fish. But baiting is labor intensive, and the bait fish hard to come by. Boats in the Chatham fleet all use gillnets now.

Dogfish, a type of shark.
Dogfish get caught in the nets along with the cod — both are groundwater fish. They are subject to regulations of the New England Fishing Management Council and are currently worth 15¢ a pound. Each boat is allowed to net 3,000 pounds a day (until the regional maximum of 12 million pounds is reached) which about pays for the trip’s gas. The dogfish are shipped to New Bedford for processing—the flesh is sent to the UK for fish and chips, the fin to Asia for shark fin soup, and the reminder goes to fertilizer. Nothing is wasted.

Seals patrol the pier area.
In days past only sea gulls patrolled the dock area, waiting to nab any fish that might drop as the catch was loaded into the lifts. Today both gray and  harbor seals are a common sight. Seals have been protected since the Marine Mammal Protection Act became law in 1972. A rarity in Chatham waters in the 1980s, they have since become commonplace. They feed on the same small fish that cod eat and traveled to the Cape in pursuit of food and have stayed there. Seals are voracious eaters and ruthless killers. They have been known to catch a large fish, to rip out its highly-prized internal organs, and to leave the remainder of the carcass on the beach. Seals are certainly not a fisherman’s friend.

Cod used to be the average person’s fish. I remember a price of $1.99/lb. This year it was being sold for nearly 5 times that – $9.99/lb.

Where have all the cod gone? Why are they so scarce off Cape Cod?

The short answer? Over-fishing.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the WorldIn Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (Penguin, 1997), Mark Kurlansky weaves a fascinating and well-documented tale of this remarkable fish, its impact on the world’s economy, and its twentieth century decline. Gastronomes will enjoy the latter pages which offer six centuries of cod recipes.

Fishermen have been chasing cod around the world for over a thousand years, ever since they discovered a way to preserve the fish, traveling farther and farther as the nearby stock grew scarce. It was upon the trade of salt cod that early entrepreneurs in Massachusetts made their fortunes. A ten inch female cod can lay 9 million eggs in a single spawn, and a world without cod would have been unimaginable to the American colonists.

Cod, with their signature white stripe.
But cod is now, without a doubt, endangered. The governments of Canada and the US have each put regulations in place in the hopes that the cod biomass can once again reach a sustainable level. There are 200 mile fishing limits off the coasts of both countries. Some areas in the Georges Banks are totally closed to fishing.  Other legislative constraints include size limits, catch limits, and gear restrictions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has listed Atlantic Cod as a species to avoid.

And what about the day boaters in Chatham and Provincetown, the last remaining commercial fleets on Cape Cod? Besides the rules about how they fish and what they catch, they are also required to equip their boats with costly radar so their location is always known. They must travel farther out to fish, and the cost of fuel has gone up. The invasion of the seals is not helping the situation.

Many Chatham fishermen were born into fishing families and see their way of life endangered. Some have retired from commercial fishing to operate charter fishing boats or to offer seal tours. But others have chosen to remain in the fleet. They know the supply of cod must be restored for their way of life to be preserved. Many of them are supporting a community-based strategy to help their fishing fleet survive.

And did we eat cod while on the Cape? I have to admit we did. It is not the day boater’s type of fishing that has wrought the real damage. Supporting the local economy and indulging a craving for fresh seafood trumped the Monterey Bay Aquarium pocket guide this time. The fresh cod cakes and fish and chips tasted great.


  1. Another great article by our friend Elaine!

  2. Glad you enjoyed fresh cod cakes and fish and chips while on the Cape! Great article... S

  3. How funny to see cod fish so expensive. I remember on meatless Fridays we would have to eat cod cakes and I hated them. Now I would love them. Figures. A dollar short and a day late.
    Good article Elaine.

  4. Great article and costumers should think carefully before they buy fish.
    I would like to point out that Icelandic, long line'd Cod is sustainable and listed as a good alternative.

    The Icelandic government is trying, more than ever to maintain sustainability when it comes to fish and of course. Fish is the foundation of the Icelandic economy.

    But thanks again for a great article and this site has been bookmark'd :)

  5. Thank you all for reading, commenting, and bookmarking.