The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Pessimism for Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine Cod

Last week we released a two part feature on the status of Atlantic cod stocks. Part 1 was a general overview of the status of stocks while Part 2 dove deeper into the reasons behind different statuses.

Retired NOAA Fisheries scientist Fredric Serchuk was inspired to comment on our feature below; if you feel so compelled, tell us what you think in the comments below or reach out to us on twitter or email.

Comment by Fredric Serchuk NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

I see little hope for the rebuilding of the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks for two reasons:  (1) these stocks are the southernmost cod stocks in the world and therefore the most vulnerable to warming waters due to climate change. I expect the productivity of these resources will diminish as their environment becomes less suitable for reproduction, growth, etc.; and (2) as opposed to Northern Cod which is still revered in Newfoundland as an icon, cod in New England is now considered a “choke species” (an ignominious appellation for the “fish that made New England” and whose fishery provided funds for the American Revolutionary War and for which the USA gained “unmolested fishing rights” from the British in the Treaty of Paris [1783] ending the Revolutionary War).  As a “choke stock,” I am fearful that Ludwig’s Ratchet Effect [via the intervention of political, economic, and management interests to harvest high quantities of more abundant multispecies stocks such as haddock at the expense of considerable bycatches (or discards) of cod] will cast a pall on the future of Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod.  I wish I could be more optimistic but when I first started assessing the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks in the late 1970s, both stocks were experiencing overfishing.  Now, more than 40 years later, overfishing is still occurring on these two stocks – but now both have collapsed.  To me, the overarching problem is exemplified below.


Editor’s note: A few days after publishing this, Serchuk contacted us with the following note: I think it might be useful for the CFOOD discussion on Atlantic cod on Twitter to include the table of world-wide catches of cod, by stock, that I prepared (see below).  This will provide some insight into the magnitude of catches among the various stocks.


Fredric Serchuk is a Senior Science Advisor (Retired) at NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, MA

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One Response

  1. Even if these were not the southernmost cod stocks and the climate had remained as it was pre-1960 it is likely they would have collapsed due to overfishing. The trouble with bringing in climate effects is encapsulated in a notorious headline once used by the prestigious journal Nature “Climate change lets fishermen off the hook”. The perfect excuse for shifting the blame and doing nothing.
    Although these are the southernmost stocks they are not the warmest – that honour goes to the Celtic Sea and southern North Sea, depending on how you define and measure their ambient temperature experience. These stocks are also not faring well under climate change but could probably continue to support a reasonable level of fishing for the rest of this century if the level of fishing on them were reduced to a sustainable level, allowing for reduced surplus production. Archaeological evidence from 4-7000 years ago, when the North Sea was at least as warm as it is now shows that Stone Age human populations ate cod.

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