The Local Food Report: life before cod

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.

Oh! and the New England Fishery Manangement Council votes on the new proposals next week. If you have anything to say before it happens, you can get in touch with them over here, or you can let your governor know over here.


Alison said...

That is fascinating and I'm looking forward to reading more about it. I've always thought that dumping back fish was such a pointless waste...good to hear that so many are interested. :)

Anonymous said...

what a great post...it seems as if fish is the trickiest to figure out when you want to eat local or just sustainably.

Elspeth said...

Thank you Alison and Rebecca. This was a tough one to write...fish is tricky from all angles—buying, explaining, regulating, selling—everything, it seems.

It seems the best thing to do is to eat some, not too much, and as locally as possible. And of course, in Wellfleet, to eat as many oysters as possible.

jess m said...

It should be noted that not all fishermen (and other stakeholders) are for sector management, and that while it seems to be working in a little fishing town like Chatham, it is much more difficult to implement in big ports like New Bedford where large, multi-boat corporations are involved. People are waiting with bated breath for next week's Council meeting to see how it goes down.

I keep waiting for the Cape to start a catch share program like they have in Maine and on the North Shore:
-- seems to be the ultimate way to eat local seafood (if you don't mind preparing it yourself).

Thanks for bringing this up, Elspeth. I love reading your posts (and listening to your pieces on WCAI). Well done!

(p.s. just so you know, the two "here" links in the last paragraph are broken.)

Elspeth said...


It's good to hear another perspective in the conversation. I talked with a lot of fishermen for the radio piece this week, and the consensus seemed to be that most fishermen were for it—I had a feeling there were some who weren't but it was hard to get anyone to say it!

I would love to join a CSF around here...I keep trying to convince the Fishmonger to start one. Maybe this winter! We'll see.

Oh! and thank you for letting me know about the links. They should be all fixed up now...


jess m said...

Just to be clear: I'm not personally against sectors at all -- just trying to make sure everyone knows how sticky the subject of fisheries management is, especially in the New England groundfish fleet. My feeling is that the small guys are for it, the big guys against it. But that is probably a gross generalization.

If anyone really wants to try to get a handle on it, go to a Council meeting and see the fur (fins? flippers?) fly! There are always very heated arguments when so many different people invested in fishing, fish processing, seafood sales, and the care of ocean ecosystems are involved. I was at a scallop advisory council meeting yesterday and thought they might have to bring law enforcement in at one point! :-) It is most certainly never simple.

Thanks again and be well.

Kelly said...

Its a tough subject and one that fisherman and others with a connection to it are very passionate about. I hope that all sides are able to find a way to keep the industry healthy both financially and in terms of fish count, it will be interesting to follow along.

Anonymous said...


Nicely done.

Sectors just did get passed - and the guys and gals at the 'Hook really do deserve a lot of credit.


Like the making of sausage, things can get pretty ugly - but the outcome is often worth it.


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