Codfish in New England
                                picture by Gadus Associates
  Perhaps no single animal or product has influenced the economic and political history of New England as much as the codfish (Gadus morhua).  The earliest explorers of North America were Norsemen who relied on dried cod for nourishment at sea (Kurlansky 1997), and the first regular visitors to the east coast of North America came to fish for cod.  Cod were the lure that attracted the pilgrims to the Massachussetts coast, and much of the wealth of the New World was in salt cod.  The permeating influence of this fish on old New Englander can be seen in its use as an adornment of many early New England mansions, seals, coins, and of course in the famed Sacred Cod that hangs in the Boston State House.  Mark Kurlansky's book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), and The Codby Albert C. Jensens are excellent accounts of the intricacies of this history.  The great respect shown the cod throughout the history of the New England is evident in the following quote from an 1895 Massachussetts House of Representatives report, investigating the desirability of transferring the Sacred Cod to the new House chambers (Kerr 1947): 

 "Poised high aloft in the old hall of the Massachussetts House of  Representatives, riding serenely the sound waves of debate, unperturbed  by the ebb and flow of enactment and repeal or the desultory storms that  vexed the nether depths of oratory, there has hung through immemorial years an ancient codfish, quaintly wrought in iron and wood and painted to  the tells of commerce, war, diplomacy, of victories won by Massachussetts in all three fields."

     Today New England's groundfish populations, cod chief among them, are so low as to be threatened with complete commercial extermination.  Those who doubt mankind's power to eliminate such a plentiful creature can look to the passenger pigeon, a bird that once darkened the skies with millions of birds, the bison, and later, the anchoveta fishery of Peru.  The decline of cod can only be attributed, according to the available evidence, to overfishing.    Why did this occur, and who is to blame?  Fishermen, biologists, and politicians all point to each other, and ultimately all are to blame in some ways.  The fact is that the economic freedom and spirit of entrepeneurship that we in America value so highly can only lead to the destruction of limited natural resources such as fish.  Regulation is necessary to sustain the populations of these animals, and the fishing industry has clearly shown that it lacks the foresight to impose effective regulation themselves.   The responsibility must lie with government, and although there has been much poor management of groundfish from this front, what has taken place has been from fisheries biologists via government, inevitably against opposition from the fishing industry.
 In this paper I will show this to be the case, presenting a brief history of codfishing and its regulation in  New England, following a short account of the fish's natural history.  Afterwards I will detail the present situation and possible future directions.  A list of governmental and nongovernmental bodies influencing fisheries will be given.

Natural History

     The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, should not be confused with the numerous other fish in the same family, the Gadidae, which go by common names like toothed cod, cusk, and hake.  There are six recognized geographic subspecies.  The Greenland cod and Pacific cod, both very similar to the Atlantic cod, are considered seperate species.  Both are also fished.   For management purposes, the U.S. Atlantic cod population is divided into Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank (and south) stocks, which have been shown to be distinct populations (Mayo 1994a).
     Primarily bottom dwellers, cod may reach a size of over 200 pounds and six feet (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953), although 100 pounds is exceedingly rare nowadays, and the average fish weighs about 6-8 ponds (Fordham 1996).  They generally prefer hard shelly bottoms over soft mud (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).
    Cod have a catholic diet, engulfing crustaceans, fish, and molluscs alike, with the latter probably being most important (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953), and are renowned for eating such unappatizing objects as false teeth,wood, cans, clothing, boots, and wedding rings (Jensen 1972).  Many of the major foods of cod, such as menhaden, shad, mackeral, herring, mussels, shrimp, and capelin, are subjects of fisheries themselves.  Most food is probably located by smell (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).
    Cod sexually reproduce, males and females releasing sperm and eggs near the ocean floor, where they mingle, the eggs are fertilized, and subsequently float to the surface.  Mating is commonly done after a mass migration to warmer and shallower water, a fact that makes cod vulnerable to fishing during that time.  Timing of the spawn depends on the region, but generally occurs between December and March.  Age of reproductive maturity also depends on region, with the southern populations generally growing and reaching maturity faster than northern cod.  Georges Bank cod, living in relatively warm water and amidst plentiful food, mature when 2-4 years old, whereas cod off Newfoundland take until approximately age seven (Fordham 1996).  Cod poduce about 1-9 million eggs yearly (Earll 1878, Bigelow and Schroeder 1953), a number that increases with age and size (Figure 1).  Cod are known to spawn on Georges Bank, Brown's Bank, Nantucket Shoals , Massachussetts Bay, Ipswich Bay, and the southwest Gulf of Maine (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953), and were known to have many other inshore spawning grounds in the past (Ames 1997).

Figure 1.  Codfish egg number versus size of female.  From Earll (1879).             Photo by Dave Cote, U. of Waterloo

     After fertilization, the eggs develop in the water column for 10-30 days before hatching (Earll 1879).  The larvae upon hatching are about 4 mm long, and float yolk upwards in the water for about two days.  After this they turn upright, absorbing the yolk sac and forming a mouth in 6-12 days (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).  At this time they are about 4.75 cm long.  When they are about 3.5 cm in length, after about two months, the fry settle to the bottom, generally preferring shallow rough bottoms with plenty of cover (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).
     During these early life stages cod are highly vulnerable to mortality, both from physical impacts such as currents, which may sweep the larvae into unfavorable waters, and predation, which may be density dependent (Ponomarenko 1994).  Predators of young cod are many, and their older kin even take a considerable toll.  Pollock, Pollachius virens,  are considered a main predator of young cod .  Sharks, especially dogfish, are the main consumers of the adults, excluding man (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).   It is often said that about one in a million codfish eggs makes it to reproductive age.

History of the Codfishery

     We have little information concerning the first new England cod fisheries. International trade in cod may have began before 1000 A.D., by the Basques (Kurlansky 1997).  The earliest written accounts of the fish are by European explorers, and these describe a great bounty of massive fish, such as those described by Captain George Waymouth in 1605 as "5 feet long and three feet aboot" (from Pearson 1972).  Many of these accounts were probably somewhat exaggerated to lure colonists to the New World, but there is no doubt that the fish were thick back then.  In 1757, fishing with handlines only, a ship of 6 men landed over 27,000 cod in three trips to the Grand Banks (Babson 1860).
     Accurate catch records for cod begin in 1893 with the first reports of the U.S. Comission of Fish and Fisheries, more commonly known as the Fish Commission, the present day National Marine Fishery Service's direct ancestor.  The Fish Commission was formed in 1871 in reponse to concerns about unregulated fishing wiping out the stocks.  These data from George's Bank and South (these are fisheries management divisions) show a  somewhat continuous decline in catches until about 1953, after which the numbers increase and then fall rapidly three times in succession (Figure 2, Mayo 1995a).  Gulf of Maine catches show a similar trend (Mayo 1995b).  What is driving these trends?

Figure 2.  Total commercial cod catch for George's bank, 1893-1993.  from Mayo (1995).

      It can be shown that most of the upward trends in the cod catch data are largely driven by the introduction of new technology or increases in effort rather than significant increases in fish populations.  Before about 1918 fishing was done from sailing vessels, schooners, and accompanying dories using handlines.  Dories alone were used inshore.  During this period a clear decline in catches can be seen, which was exacerbated by World War I, when enemy submarines were a danger to all vessels, and by a short postwar depression (Jensen 1972).   Afterwards and through the 1920's there is an increase in catches.  This reflects the introduction of several new technical advances in the fishing industry.  First introduced in the U.S. in 1905 (shown by a spike in the catch data)(Jensen 1972), by 1918 steam-powered trawlers were being built in Bath, Maine (Kurlansky 1997); these boats were faster and safer than the schooners, and could pull otter trawls.  Trawls were capable of sweeping many more fish per day from the bottom than could be pulled up on handlines.  In 1921 Boston plants began to filet fish with machines and ship the filets to market, and in 1925 Clarence Birdseye, in Gloucester, established a technique for quick-freezing fish.  The frozen fish industry increased the use of scrod (young cod), but their preferred fish turned out to be haddock, with its large filets.  Thus haddock were heavily fished into decline during the 1920's, perhaps allowing cod catches to continue their increase in that period.
     The Great Depression of the 1930's, combined with low numbers of fish, contributed to the downturn in catches at that time.  This was followed in the 1940's by World War II, which again led to lower fishing effort as many trawlermen were conscripted to military duty.  Post-war growth, along with the evolution of the factory ship and sonar during the war, led to a short-lived increase in catches, followed by a decline which may have been caused by a temporary boom in haddock fishing (Jensen 1972).
 In the 1950's another decrease in haddock, combined with the invention of the frozen fish stick, led to increased effort and cod catches.   In a 1950's advertisement, Gorton's called the fish stick "the latest greatest achievement of the fishing industry today." (from Kurlansky 1997).
     Before about 1962, only New England and a few Canadian vessels fished off the east coast of the U.S.  During the 1960's huge foreign fleets, especially from the Soviet Union, began fishing offshore, increasing catches drastically during this period, and instilling worry in biologists and rage in U.S. fishermen.
     A massive drop in catches during the 1970's, accompanied by the clamor of fishermen, spurred the federal government  to act unilaterally, with passage of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976.  This act established a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone within which no foreign vessel could fish without permission, and also established a govermental mandate to sustainably manage fish stocks. Before this, however, the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries was placing international quotas on catches, including cod after 1972 (Anthony 1988).  By 1973, ICNAF biologists were taking bycatch, species interaction, and stock sustainability into account, using statistical models, when allocating quotas.  By 1976 cod catches were increasing in response (Anthony 1988).
     Passage of the Magnuson Act, however, changed this possible direction of recovery.  U.S. fishermen were excited by the new potential that was opening up with the exit of foreign fleets, and much investment in new boats ensued, encouraged by govermental support in the form of loans and tax deferrals (Buck 1995), and accompanied by processing plant development.   The management councils formed after the MFCMA were inexperienced, and quickly created a morass of regulations that led to exceeded quotas and widespread cheating by fishermen.  This was compounded by the excellent 1977 cod catch, which was largely composed of two-year-old fish.  Managers raised quotas in response to this superficial increase.   Since passage of the MFCMA there has been overwhelming fishing pressure on cod, and catches are thought to be driven by recruitment, with catches comprising larger numbers of small fish (Anthony 1988)(Figure 3).   These small fish are clearly less fecund (Figure 1).
      NMFS's 1994 report on cod stocks (Mayo) concluded that the population had declined by 60% on George's Bank.  This unprecedented drop spurred limits in fishing days per boat, starting at 138 days in 1995 and decreasing to 88 days in 1996.  Since then cod have remained scarce, and some fear they are gone forever, at least in numbers worth fishing.  National Marine Fisheries' next asessment of the stocks is due this year.


Figure 3.  Fishing effort on George's Bank, 1978-1992.  LPUE is landings per unit effort = landings per day fished.


Figure 4.  George's Bank scrod (young cod) catch, 1960-1993, illustrating the increased mortality of young fish accompanying a decline in the larger more fecund fish.  From Mayo (1995).

Cod Today

        The National Marine

Other Impacts

     There are certainly other sources of cod mortality other than fishing, although fishery biologists generally agree that they aren't needed to explain the recent collapse of the cod fishery (Meyers and Cadigan 1995, Mayo 1995).  The main factors considered are physical mortality, predation, and habitat loss.   I will briefly discuss the latter two, as they have the greatest potential for being anthropogenically influenced, at least in the short term.
     Predation pressure can be influenced by man.  For example, introduced predators or fishing certain species preferentially can cause shifts in dominance of particular predator species.  This is thought to have happened in New England, where unusually high populations of dogfish and skates have arisen, perhaps in response to a decline in their competitors, groundfish and flounders (Mayo 1995).  These fish prey on cod, particularly the young (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).  This influence needs to be taken into account in fishery models.
     Habitat loss is also a problem, particularly in cod spawning areas.  Much inshore habitat has been lost due to filling, dredging, and pollution of inshore waters (Ames 1997).  An unknown factor is the influence of the nets themselves, particularly scallop draggers, which disturb or eliminate the hard shelly bottom that cod prefer.   No doubt they have an impact; again, this is a fishery interaction problem and needs to be accounted for in the regulations.
     The relatively stochastic nature of natural impacts on recruits (e.g. currents, storms, predators), dictates the need for caution in management.  In the past, a large pool of older fish could easily compensate for bad recruiting years, merely leaving a gap in the age structure of the population.  Today, with fewer and fewer fish every year, a bad year class can spell disaster.


     The conclusion one must draw from the decline of New England's cod fishery is that unregulated overcapitalization and fishing effort, combined with the vagaries of the fish's breeding success, were the cause.  This is no surprise; it is the same pattern seen to some degree in all commercially important fisheries, and is familiar enough that perhaps most citizens know of the problem.  My position on the solution, along with that of most fishery biologists (e.g. Anthony 1988, Mayo 1995, Pauly et al. 1998), is that direct limits on mortality, in the form of carefully tracked quotas, whether transferable or otherwise, be instituted, and entry into the fisheries be limited.  Regulation was not imposed early in the case of cod, and it led to disaster.  While we focus on this problem, other fisheries are going relatively unwatched, and history is likely to repeat itself.  As has been pointed out by several recent authors, fishing is decending lower and lower down the food chain, threatening to cause massive ecosystem collapse (Pauly et al 1998).  These animals are important to us not only for food and aesthetic value, but as members of  complexly interwoven  ecosystems that we depend on for survival.  Thus we must shift to a management view through the glass of the precautionary principal, whereby the burden of proof is required to harvest the resource, not to prevent that harvest (Dayton 1998).

Take Action

     The Center for Marine Conservation, in their publication New England Groundfish: From Glory to Grief (1996), include an excellent guide to things you can do to encourage fisheries conservation.  One thing you can do is not eat cod and other threatened fish.  Knowing what the issues are, and expressing your concern to friends as well as restaurant and store owners, goes a long way to changing people's attitudes about things they take for granted.  On a higher level, fish are just as much yours as anyone else's, and you have a say in how they're managed.  Writing managers and your Congressional representatives when key decisions are being made is invaluable.  You can keep track of local developments by calling the New England Fishery Management Council, or the Council in your district, and asking to be put on their mailing list of updates on Council meetings and activities.     Attendance of these meetings by any citizen is welcomed, and you will have opportunity to make your views known.  Unfortunately, the oceans are not in most people's backyards, and thus concern for them tends to fall in the hands of fishermen and the commercial interests that may be involved, and a few conservationists and biologists.  You can make a difference in decisions upon which the fate of species may rest.



Anthony V.C.  1990.  The New England groundfish fishery after 10 years under  the  Magnuson Fishery Conservation and             Management Act.  North American Journal  of Fisheries Management 10:2, 175-184.

Buck E.G.  1995.  Overcapitalization in the U.S. commercial fishing industry.   Congressional Research Service report 95-296 ENR.

Dayton P.K.  1998.  Reversal of the burden of proof in fisheries management.   Science  279, 821-822.

Earll R.E.  1879.  A report on the history and present condition of the shore cod- fisheries of Cape Anne, Mass., together with notes on the natural     history and  artificial propagation of the species.  Report of the Commissioner of Fish and  Fisheries 1879.

Fordham S.V.  1996.  New England Groundfish: From Glory to Grief .  Center for  Marine Conservation, 1996.

Mayo R.K., L. O'Brien, and F.M. Serchuck.  1994.  Assessment of the George's Bank  cod stock for 1993.  Northeast Fisheries Science Center Reference  Document 94-10.

Mayo R.K.  1995.  Assessment of the Gulf of Maine cod stock for 1994.    Northeast fisheries science center reference document 95-02.

Pauly D., V. Christensen, J. Dalsgaard, R. Froese, F. Torres Jr.  1998.  Fishing down  marine food webs.  Science 279, 860-863.

Ponomarenko V.P.  1994.  Mortality and survival of cod eggs in the Lofoten- Barents Sea area.  Dokl. Ran, 338:3, 425-427.

Sette O.E.  Statistics of the catch of cod off the east coast of North America to 1926.   Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries for 1927.