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Editorial: For fishermen, it’s boom and bust

‘No profession has ever placed more emphasis on avoiding disaster than seafaring. Mariners instinctively anticipated danger, maintained a sharp lookout, and constantly scanned their surroundings for indication of the slightest problem. To relax vigilance was to court catastrophe. Yet disaster struck for both fish and fishermen . . . ”

Those words, by former fisherman and University of New Hampshire marine historian Jeffrey Bolster, could refer to the collapse of New England’s cod fishery. In January, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce catch limits by 77 percent in the Gulf of Maine and 61 percent on Georges Bank. But Bolster, the author of the recently published The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, was instead describing three centuries of boom and bust in the North Atlantic. Every increase in fish abundance spawned more fishermen, and every increase in fishing technology led to a rapid collapse of fish stocks. The phenomenon repeated itself over and over again.

Sturgeon, primitive, armored tanks up to 16 feet long, once patrolled the Merrimack River in vast numbers. They were virtually extirpated by over-fishing before the Revolutionary War. Handliners in small boats went from a handful of hooks to tub-trawling, releasing long lines with hundreds of hooks that were kept coiled in a tub until deployed. Fish stocks crashed. Tub-trawlers were supplanted by draggers that swept the bottom with ever bigger, more efficient nets pulled first by sail and then by steam. Pressure on dwindling fish stocks increased again with the arrival of factory ships, the first a French vessel that arrived in 1858. Eventually, the proliferation of ever bigger factory ships, most from other nations, led to the imposition of the 200-mile limit that gives coastal nations far greater say over the fate of fish stocks offshore.

Over the years, fishery after fishery, halibut, mackerel, menhaden, and now cod, the namesake fish of New England, foundered. Every collapse was eventually followed by a rebound, but every increase peaked at a population smaller than the previous high. The warnings that the seas were being stripped were sounded over and over but always imperfectly heeded, a pattern that continues to the present day.

“Many small-scale fishermen sought to protect the resources, or at least to have it both ways, wanting fish for the future even as they insisted on fishing - often with increasingly efficient gear,” Bolster wrote. Optimistic regulators repeatedly lifted restrictions as stocks improved, only to have them crash again.

The cod fishery of Canada’s eastern coast has been all but dead for two decades and its fate off New England appears grim. “It’s midnight and it’s getting darker when it comes to how many cod there are. There isn’t enough cod for people to make a decent living,” John Bullard, regional administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The New York Times. Gone with the boats will be all that support them, the bait operations, ice producers, marine suppliers, fish processors and a way of life.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte joined other members of Congress from New England to call for a loosening of the proposed restrictions, a call that for the sake of the fate of the sea as a source of food, shouldn’t be heeded. They have also joined with their counterparts on the West Coast to seek federal disaster aid for a fishing industry that stands to be economically devastated by this latest attempt to rebuild cod stocks. That call should be answered with federal financial aid, boat buyout programs, and the retraining of who make their living from the sea.

The ocean, as Bolster argues in his book, is mortal and in parts it’s already dying. Despite centuries of experience, humans have yet to find a sustainable way to harvest the seas. Until they do, fishing will be a boom and bust enterprise that can support fewer and fewer people.

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