There are some foods we can do without around here. I can't be sure, but I think there was life on the Cape before bananas and avocados and mango mojitos, though that last one might be up for debate. There was not, however, life before cod.
At least, no human life. Every population that's lived on this strip of sand has owed their survival, in some manner at least, to codfish. There was codfish before agriculture, before Stop n' Shop, and certainly before the Europeans arrived. In fact, if you've read Cod or Salt or any of those other fascinating edible histories of New England, you know that cod is why the Old Worlders came over here in the first place. They were looking for fish to dry and turn into salt cod and ship home, and they found it in the New World in droves. It was only later that they decided to stay.
These days, the big codfish that used to be so common are getting harder and harder to find. So are the cod fishermen, as their livelihood slowly gets eaten away.
Thankfully, a group of ground-fishermen in Chatham decided they were ready to do something about it. After all, avocados are good and all, but they can't really compare to a panko-crusted fillet. So about four years ago, they came up with a plan. They asked fisheries regulators if they could manage their catch as a community, the way harvesting cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest did, putting together their catch history and agreeing to take a fixed amount of fish from the sea every year.
This way, they could avoid fishing under the days-at-sea regulations, which allow fishermen to go out only a fixed number of days, and take so many pounds per day. As one fisherman said, if you put your net in for twenty minutes too long and catch 1,000 pounds of extra fish, you have to throw them back. Since they're already dead, this doesn't do much for the whole plenty-of-fish-in-the-sea objective.
The regulators went for it, and in May of 2004, the Georges Bank Cod Hook Sector was formed.
Participation was voluntary, and the sector took applications and put together a board of directors and a manager and based on how many fishermen applied and their catch history, a quota was assigned. The quota was a percentage of the Total Allowable Catch—how many pounds of groundfish (cod, haddock, and flounder) can come out of the sea every year—and was monitored carefully. Today, this sector has twenty-five fishermen on board.
The Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector came next, in May of 2006, and today it has nine fishermen involved.
As other groups of fishermen have watched these Chatham sectors manage their own catch—cutting down on how many days they have to fish, working as a community to run the business of the sea, not wasting a single fish—they've decided they want to make the switch, too. Seventeen groups from Connecticut to Maine put in proposals this year, and depending on what the New England Fishery Management Council decides next week, there could be new sectors in Martha's Vineyard, Boston, New Bedford, and the South Shore by 2010. And that's just around here. Imagine if the whole system switched over—no more dumped fish, business and finances aligned with conservation. Maybe, just maybe, cod would have a chance.
This is thick stuff, I know. If you want to keep reading, I recommend heading over here, or over here, or grabbing this pdf. It's hard to say what the right way is to keep the fish in the sea, but this seems like an awfully good start.