Home / General / The Understandable Desperation of Cod Fishers

The Understandable Desperation of Cod Fishers


To build upon my piece on cod (was going to write “cod piece” but was like, wait that’s something else) from last week, see this letter to the editor of the Providence Journal from a fisherman/PhD student which I think really gets at the desperation those employed for generations as cod fishers feel.

Admittedly, the writing of the op-ed is not all that clear, but what he seems to be saying is that scientific models say one thing but personal observation of the fish stocks say another and that people should therefore be allowed to fish. The problem with this is that a) the models are almost certainly correct and b) there aren’t enough fish to sustain this lifestyle, not to mention the species. He blames industry too:

Perhaps we should all take a minute to think next time that we eat out and have a choice between “sustainable” factory trawled fish or “unsustainable” hand-caught Gulf of Maine cod. Is domination by 200-foot factory trawlers owned by million-dollar businesses how we want the fishing industry to end up? Is an industry of a few large boats truly more sustainable than a few small ones? Or does it simply come down to the reliability of science and management ? In any event, the New England groundfish industry will soon be consolidated into the hands of a few factory trawlers employing tenant-fishermen.

There is a good point here–the industrialization of fishing has been a massive disaster except for a few capitalists. It’s not as if we really needed a huge explosion in fishing in the 1960s and 1970s that started the process toward this crisis. Fishing became a product like plastic–what new things can we figure out what to do with this stuff. That included pet food, fertilizers, the creation of aquaculture operations, glues, etc. On the other hand, science and management does have to rule the day here I think–although like forestry management, it might be quite correct to say that fisheries management basically favors monopoly over small producers. I need to examine this in more detail.

Factory fishing simply is not sustainable for communities or for fish stocks. It drives independent fishers out of work and destroys fishing cultures. And unlike, say, corn–where for all its problems at least you can make an argument that factory farming has the potential to feed the world, factory fishing is the modern day equivalent of factory bison hunting.

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  • Steve

    Excellent book on this; Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.

    • laslo

      I got the impression from Kulansky’s book that cod had already pretty much been fished out.

      • Davis X. Machina

        The centuries-old Grand Banks fishery by then was effectively dead. By the time the US and Canada had their 200 mile exclusive economic zones in place, and had built the ships to do what the Europeans and Soviets had done, they were effectively prepping the instruments for an autopsy.

        Newfoundland and the Maritimes closed their fisheries in 1992, 1993, and 1994. They’ve effectively never re-opened.

        The Georges and the Gulf of Maine staggered on a little longer.

        William Warner’s 1984 Distant Water is a wonderful book about the end of the era, when there were so many factory ships on the Banks that from airliners going over to Europe it looked like a city out there….

      • Steve

        There are still fish, but not enough to recover anytime soon. Maybe they are past the critical point where they can return. His book says that some Arctic species are moving southward but they aren’t commercially useful as I recall. Older book, but still really good. The issues haven’t changed much.

  • Dano

    This is all too familiar to anyone who has studied ecology. Most classes will have some sort of fishing game to understand the nexus between management and outcomes.

    It often takes several tries for students to figure out how to get a “sustainable” harvest.

    It appears that – yet again – we learn that we never learn.



  • Tom Waters

    Erik, you should watch Captains Courageous for its mind-blowing scenes of the Georges Bank back when the fish were plentiful.

  • Royko

    This post struck me with the same feelings I had reading the pot legalization post. In both cases, while I am sympathetic to the work and culture and community and way of life lost, the plain fact is, when your industry is dead, it’s dead. It doesn’t really matter that the culture of the Emerald Triangle is unique, or that fishermen are so swell that Jesus hung out with them. Public policy can only do so much to keep an industry alive in a particular area, and even when it can, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to do so.

    I’ll also note that anger towards giant corporate business taking over an industry seems to be as ubiquitous as, well, giant corporate business taking over industries. I don’t really know what the answer is, but it would be nice if some of this near-universal hatred could be funneled into actually making big business less distasteful (or less prevalent, although I think that ship has sailed) rather than just a steady stream of mourning for the mom and pop businesses of old.

    • Cody

      Well, the topic of over-fishing is a lot different than legalizing pot. We’re not just mourning a lost industry here – we’re mourning a lost SPECIES OF FISH. Although it’s not quite that bad yet, we sure seem to be heading that way.

      The only way to keep big business out of these kinds of activities is regulation, and in the case of fishing they already have the reasons to.

      • cpinva

        regulation by who, and how would it be enforced?

        “The only way to keep big business out of these kinds of activities is regulation, and in the case of fishing they already have the reasons to.”

        big business does what it does, unless someone bigger and badder shows up, to stop them. the japanese and the russians will happily and profitably ignore any regulations, by anyone, until their ships are sunk. since that hasn’t happened yet, the US aqua-industry would be foolish to not join in, even knowing they are destroying their own business. the same thing has happened with oysters, fowl, etc. they’ll take as many as they can, as fast as they can, then move on to the next item, when they’ve wiped it out. it’s what they do.

    • Ken

      when your industry is dead, it’s dead.

      That’s what they said about mohair.

  • quercus

    I don’t want to be unsympathetic to fishermen, but is there something in particular about ‘factory fishing’ that — for a given catch level –makes it less sustainable than hand-crafted, artisinal fishing?

    I mean, nobody likes factories (fishing, or manufacturing) and everybody loves handmade, but I must say I don’t mind that, say, toilet paper, is now so cheap that I don’t worry about how much I’m using. If TP was all hand-crafted, I’m sure it would be nicer, but I’m pretty sure what with having to save up for it and worrying about how much I’m using, my overall quality of life would be lower. And, for TP, the factory is probably more resource efficient (in terms of raw materials, waste, and cost to build) than a bunch of small paper shops making the same amount, so environmentally the factory is better.

    • shah8

      factory fishing is a misnomer, here. Like saying factory coal mining when we see mountaintop removal going on.

    • Gepap

      The small local farmers are in essence too inefficient to be able to decimate the fish stock like the more capital intensive large fishing fleets can. I guess with enough small fisherman you would, but you would likely get the small fisherman to limit the possible fleet size in order to protect their own profitability. The prize of fish would be higher, of course.

      As for the notion that with regards to anything a single vast enterprise is more ecologically sound is, well, questionable.

    • ChrisS

      “factory” fishing refers to 12,000 hp diesel boats with mile long trawler nets that scour ocean floors clean. They throw back what they can’t sell (oftentimes dead). Additionally, it’s the ability of these ships to continually harvest – fisheries never get a chance to rebound. Storms/winter weather don’t limit them.

      Smaller “artisanal” don’t have these advantages because they’re ridiculously expensive.

      Frankly, IMO, if you’re not catching the fish yourself, you probably shouldn’t be eating seafood. The oceans just can’t support that kind of stress anymore.

    • Bill Murray

      is there something in particular about ‘factory fishing’ that — for a given catch level –makes it less sustainable than hand-crafted, artisinal fishing?

      The point of the factory aspect is to increase the catch level

      • cpinva

        and do it 24/7/365.

        “The point of the factory aspect is to increase the catch level”

        they rarely go in to port, except for major repairs, being off-loaded and supplied out to sea, and they run 24/7. quite literally, a factory on water. they don’t “increase the catch level”, they never stop the catch, ever.

  • Zaftig Amazon

    As a former fisheries biologist working in Alaska salmon fisheries, maintaining sustainable “artisanal” commercial fisheries is possible, provided that it’s done with limited entry permits, in which one person can have only one permit in a designated commercial fishery, and that permit must be fished at least once during the season. Permits that are based on quotas (pounds allowed to be caught) usually end up siphoned into an ever smaller number of permittees. I’ve also noticed that when the feds get involved, industrial fishing is not far behind. There are problems with Alaska’s permit system, but it seems to be a strong place from which to start, if you want to have a sustainable, local commercial fishery.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Some marine biologists believe that, as commercial fishing technology becomes more efficient and the oceans are emptied ever faster, mankind has been eating its way down the marine food chain. Consider squid. In the Captains Courageous days it was strictly considered bait for “real” fish like cod. Now they call it “calamari” and charge $15 a pop for it in fancy restaurants. One expert told the New Yorker that our grandchildren will be eating jellyfish sandwiches—and he was only half kidding.

    • ChrisS

      A little bit of A and and little of B. Calamari is deep fried and squid doesn’t really have a significant flavor. People eat it because it tastes deep fried.

      But any trip into my (higher end) seafood department tells a similar story: lots of farmed shrimp, shellfish, and salmon. A tray of Halibut, Mahi Mahi, and Tuna steaks at $22/lb and up. The rest of the case is bluefish, bronzini, farmed rainbow and catfish, and mackerel.

      • GFW

        Good thing I like chicken. I’m going to miss salmon though – don’t eat the farmed stuff.

  • Speak Truth

    Cod Fishers

    Sounds like Friday night in San Francisco

  • Simple mInd

    Don’t forget the fish demand fueled by the big chain restaurants like Red Lobster, Long John Silvers’, McDonalds, etc.

  • Cynically Yours

    That included pet food, fertilizers, the creation of aquaculture operations, glues, etc.

    But I kinda like aquaculture operations.

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