When Fisheries Managers Fail

Gulf of Maine Atlantic Cod, by Joachim S. Mueller

Photo: Atlantic Cod, by Joachim S. Mueller

It’s the middle of summer. Forty years ago, I would have been fishing for cod southeast of Rhode Island.

That might catch some people by surprise, because they think of cod as a cold-water species that only appears off New York and southern New England during the dead of winter. But when the stocks were healthy, that wasn’t the case.

For many years, until the early 1980s, there was a very productive and very active midsummer fishery for cod and other northeastern groundfish on Cox’s Ledge, an area of rough bottom located about 25 miles southeast of Pt. Judith, Rhode Island.

At the time, I did my codfishing out of Galilee, Rhode Island, which supported four party boats that fished for cod on a regular basis: the Gail Frances, the Julie C, the Nautican and the Super Squirrel. An extensive charter boat fleet, along with private vessels, also took part in the fishery. Out at Cox’s Ledge, the Rhode Island boats would be joined by a number of similar vessels from Montauk and Orient, New York, along with others from Groton and Niantic in Connecticut.

The boats would be crowded. Even though it was a long ride out to the codfishing grounds—an hour and a half on the fastest boats out of Galilee, twice that long if you sailed out of the other ports—on a typical summer weekday, anglers would line the rails on both sides of the boat. Some were serious codfishermen; others were tourists just out for a day on the water.

Regardless of their relative skill, most would take some fish home. They might catch a half-dozen so-called “market cod,” each less than 10 pounds, or they might latch onto the “pool winner,” a big fish that often weighed more than 50 pounds (the smallest I ever remember weighed 35), and earned them a handful of cash contributed by the other anglers on board.

It wasn’t always—or even typically—the most skilled anglers who won the pool. I never managed to take the prize, although I once had the second-place fish on seven consecutive trips, a feat that earned me nothing but lots of fillets. Often, the winner would be a first-time codfishermen, who would be convinced they were snagged on the bottom, even though the tip of their rod was slowly pulsing up and down…

And it wasn’t just cod that were caught.

Sometimes the pool fish would be a big white hake. Sometimes, on the way to or from the grounds, the captain would softly call for a mate to come up to the bow of the boat, because there was a swordfish finning out that might be harpooned. Anglers who allowed their baits to rest on the sea floor often caught a score of ocean pout, an unattractive bottom-dweller that was generally considered a nuisance fish, but yielded fillets of fine-grained, snow-white meat to those willing to ignore external appearances.

Cox’s Ledge cod trips created some of my fondest angling memories, but that’s an opportunity lost to today’s anglers. The New England Fishery Management Council (New England Council) badly mismanaged the species, never imposing rules strict enough to end overfishing, much less rebuild the overfished stock. The big white hake, though not overfished, are largely gone, too. A few are still caught, mostly on deep-water wrecks, but the 50-pound “jelly bellies,” as the Super Squirrel’s captain, Al Jarman, used to call them, now mainly swim in old anglers’ memories. Even the despised ocean pout are overfished, to the point where none may be legally landed.

There are still a few cod out on Cox’s Ledge during the summer, but not enough to support a party boat fishery, much less a fishery involving close to a dozen boats from three different states. Today, the cod fishery off New York and southern New England is a cold-weather affair, dominated by hard-core anglers who catch mostly small cod. These days, the pool fish on the boats rarely exceeds 20 pounds, and there are many days when they don’t even weigh half of that.

The loss of the summer cod fishery is difficult to quantify. The revenues lost to the party boats, who can no longer participate in the fishery, must be substantial. But the greater loss was to everyday anglers, who have been deprived of an inexpensive opportunity to catch good-sized, good-tasting fish in the sort of convivial setting that can create lasting memories, and make fishermen want to return.

And, sadly, the summer cod fishery isn’t the only thing that we’ve lost.

In late spring, pollock used to swarm within sight of Block Island. The fishery began a little before Memorial Day, and lasted through the first two weeks of June. The average pollock probably weighed between 15 and 25 pounds, although some were notably larger.

The fish were incredibly numerous. It was usually easy for private boat anglers to get all of the fish that they needed with single-hooked diamond jigs. The charter boats, which usually wanted to load up with fish for their passengers, would troll so-called “umbrella rigs” that featured four, and sometimes, six arms and as many separate lures, and often hooked more than one pollock at a time, although the fish often managed to fight against one another and, in the process, rip the rigs apart and so gain their freedom.

It was a wonderful fishery, which helped out the for-hire fleet because it occurred in a sort of “shoulder season,” when the summer fisheries were all starting up, but had not yet reached their peak.

But the New England Council mismanaged pollock, too; the Block Island run collapsed by the mid-1980s.

Yet of all the New England Council’s failures, the worst and perhaps the most tragic was winter flounder, particularly what’s known as the Southern New England/Mid-Atlantic stock (SNEMA Stock). While the cod and pollock fisheries required anglers to own a seaworthy boat, or pay a party or charter boat to take them out to the grounds, winter flounder belonged to everyone.

As a boy, I caught them from shore and from local docks, as well as from my father’s boat. We started fishing for them in March, and stopped in December; although summer fishing was slow, there were always some flounder to be had. My wife’s introduction to angling came when her grandfather took her flounder fishing from various party and rental boats. They began fishing as early as February; she remembers catching flounder so early in the season that snowflakes still fell.

Flounder were the ultimate family fish, accessible to and catchable by children too young for kindergarten and elderly anglers who could no longer stand up to the rigors of pursuing other species.

Unlike cod and pollock, flounder spend a part of their lives in shallow inshore waters, where they spawn during late winter and spring. Then most move offshore. They are subject not only to the New England Council while summering in federal waters, but to state managers before, during and immediately after their spawning time.

Thus, both the New England Council and state managers share the blame for the SNEMA Stock’s collapse. The New England Council was no more interested in conserving flounder than they were in conserving other species. It always supported “flexible” management measures that allowed the greatest short-term economic return, and refused to impose an annual catch limit until Congress amended the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act a decade ago, and required them to do so.

State managers were unwilling to take any action more restrictive than what federal managers imposed. In 1999, when there was still time to recover the stock, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Winter Flounder Management Board refused to require states to impose needed harvest reductions because the New England Council had not also done so.

Thus, the SNEMA Stock collapsed, and again angling opportunities disappeared. In 1986, New York anglers made more than one million trips in pursuit of winter flounder; last year, thirty years later, they only made 74,000 winter flounder trips. The tackle shops, boat liveries and for-hire fleet lost the economic benefits that would have accrued from anglers making nearly a million additional trips every year. Anglers lost a tradition that had been binding fishing families together for generations.

Far too often, fishing-related businesses fight needed regulations, arguing that the rules might harm their incomes.

But as these examples show, the real long-term harm to the fishing industry comes from too few regulations, not from too many.

While placing additional regulations on the cod, pollock and winter flounder fisheries might have caused a little short-term distress, in the long term, the fisheries—and the businesses they supported—would still be there.

Because fishery managers failed to adopt needed regulations, those fisheries are gone, and anglers’ chances to be a part of them are gone as well.

About Charles Witek

Charles Witek is an attorney, salt water angler and blogger. Read his work at One Angler’s Voyage.

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