What’s To Become of Nonna’s Baccalà?

Many Mediterranean rooted families eat a version of dried and salted cod, often the night before Christmas. The Italians call it Baccalà. The Portuguese call it Bacalhau. The Spanish, Bacalao. I like cod on occasion for dinner, steamed or lightly sauteed, but the salt cod was never one of my favorites.

But with news out that the cod industry is in for some very harsh limitations, I wonder what, if any, traditions will be curtailed.

photo by Mark Lovewell, Vineyard Gazette

Fishermen up and down the east coast are reacting to recent cod news, best shared here via the excellent and definitive story done by The Vineyard Gazette.

The New England Fishery Management Council dramatically cut landing limits on cod and yellowtail flounder last week for the coming year. Meeting in Portsmouth, N.H. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, the council voted on a plan to reduce the landings of cod in the Gulf of Maine by as much as 77 per cent from the 2012 quota for the next three years, and to cut the landing of Georges Bank cod by 61 per cent from the 2012 quota.

from undercurrentnews.com
from undercurrentnews.com

Once the most common fish in the waters around New England, the cod numbers are now so low that they are teetering on the edge of extinction, officials said. To prevent further decline and hopefully restore the stocks, the council voted to impose deep restrictions on the catching of these fish beginning on May 1.

The Gazette story, by Mark Lovewell, continues below.
[Ed. note: emphasis mine]

The greater worry, Mr. Cunningham said [Rip Cunningham, chairman of the New England Council], is whether these cuts are enough or too late to make a difference. Newfoundland has had a moratorium on the catching of cod in place for 20 years and the fish, still in low numbers, are only now slowly starting to show recovery.

“There is a part of me that is saying we may be seeing an environmental change that is happening, that is changing faster than we thought. I remain concerned that the stocks are in such low level . . . it may be very hard or impossible to bring them back,” Mr. Cunningham said.

At the council hearing, fishermen testified that the cuts being made would ruin their industry.

David Pierce, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries, has been a voting member of the council, watching and making decisions for more than 12 years. Mr. Pierce voted against the motion to reduce the catch. “It was perhaps the most difficult decision made by the council because of the implications. Very likely it will shut down the entire Gulf of Maine fishery and impact all the groundfishermen, most of them in small vessels.”

Mr. Pierce said the reduction was too catastrophic for the fishermen. “We realize that cod is in trouble on the Gulf of Maine and on Georges, but the industry is in trouble, too. The inshore fishery is in trouble.”

The scientific evidence of how much of a decline in cod is dramatic. Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service believe that the cod population on Georges is seven per cent of what should be out there.

Mike Armstrong, an assistant director for the Division of Marine Fisheries, said this week that two years ago: “We studied a large aggregation of cod that were three miles off-shore. The aggregation was right off Gloucester. You could drop a jig on the backs of them, there were so many. Last year we saw a tremendous drop. We are not sure they are coming back.”

“This is probably the biggest disaster in my career,” Mr. Armstrong said. “This is not just the decline of the cod, it is the whole fabric of the fishing industry.”

At an earlier council meeting, officials also discussed opening offshore fishing grounds that have been closed for almost two decades. The closest protected area to the Vineyard is called the Nantucket Lightship. This is a large shoal southeast of Nantucket that has been closed to protect juvenile stocks for many years.

“The message that came out of the council meeting,” Mr. Pierce said, “is that sector managers can fish the closed areas as long as they don’t go into the habitat areas. Only the northeast portion of the closed area is considered for habitat. Everything else would be open.”

Whether to allow fishing in the closed area will be subject to a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the months ahead. Mr. Pierce said it is likely these areas will be opened.

A number of conservation groups oppose the re-opening of portions of these closed areas. The Conservation Law Foundation and the Northeast Fisheries Program with the Pew Environment Group are publicly opposed.

Mr. Cunningham has his own concern. “We hear a lot of people talking about the closed areas. Obviously, we’ve heard that the closed areas haven’t done anything. They haven’t rebuilt the stocks. If you look at the confidence around the science, I take another look. The stocks might have already collapsed if we didn’t have those closed areas,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Next summer Vineyard fishermen could expect to see a lot more fishermen in the region shifting their efforts to these waters, Mr. Pierce said.

These fishermen who can’t fish the Gulf of Maine for cod aren’t going to disappear. They will likely go somewhere else,” he said. “If they have the permits, and most of them do, they will fish other fisheries.”

Of Vineyard waters, Mr. Pierce said: “You will see new faces out there.”

Mr. EOS doesn’t fish for cod from his perch (tee-hee) up on the rocks of our RI beach, but did catch a big one off West Tisbury (on the Vineyard, during his Derby days). We do like to frequent local fish markets and would hate to think a hunk of their business might be in jeopardy. There are already limitations to catching other fish, and a ban on others completely, even bait. Mr. EOS will have to add his two cents for the specifics.

Wanna bet the price of cod at the fish market will go through the roof?!

10 thoughts on “What’s To Become of Nonna’s Baccalà?

  1. The impact on business and families will be enormous, but now it’s time to pay. Overharvesting of timber, minerals and the ocean has gone on with no regard (or knowledge) for decades. What ancient peoples close to the land understood has been lost. For the future of our children and the balance of nature itself we have to rethink and for now suffer the consequence of greed.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and adding your comment. However, I’m not sure I agree that over-harvesting has gone on with no regard. The commercial fishermen I know are keenly aware and respectful of keeping species alive and well. They would be the first ones out of business if they picked up every fish in the water. Sure, some fishermen abuse the system, but not many.

      1. I’m sure some are moderate and carefull. But over all there has been an unbalance to let the young grow and enough of the old to re populate. There is a growing problem similar here in Hawaii. Same thing has happened in the Gulf of Mexico with the shrimp harvest. It is not always a few being greedy it is also just too many trying to harvest from the same resource.

        1. Yes, I am sure you are right. I am not an expert, only a cod eater. One of my good friends is married to a salmon fisherman in Alaska. They fish herring too. And the are often set serious restrictions and even bans.

  2. This is such an alarming and sad story! I hate to think of how much we’ve overfished all our oceans — and I agree; it’s not the small fishermen, it’s the big industrial boats that scoop up everything in sight. I hope and pray that the cod will make a comeback and it seems as if the protected areas are their only hope! Great story, EOSR!

  3. When I was a kid in RI it was rare to see a bluefish hauled ashore. Now, there are large schools in the fall. Tautog were plentiful back then; not so good today. My father used to drive me up to a herring run for an easy haul; parents ate the roe, and the carcasses went for fertilizer. Now, there is a total ban on netting herring, and has been for several years. Lobster and striped bass – I’ve seen fluctuations in their catch as well. I’m no expert either, and I only fish recreationally, but it’s hard to believe that only natural cycles are in play here.

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