Thirty Years of Overfishing

New England’s history with Atlantic cod spans centuries. The fish gave Cape Cod its name and the region an economic foundation when it was still a colony of England. For a time, there was plenty of cod to catch, cook, and export.

Today, the story of cod has turned bleak. Decades of poor management have left Atlantic cod overfished and on the brink. Few seafood restaurants on Cape Cod can even serve local cod anymore – it’s likely shipped in from Iceland.

For the past 30 years, headline after headline has documented the decline of Atlantic cod. For the entire period of time, it’s been the same story over and over again: poor management, not enough protected areas, fewer and fewer cod. Below is a collection of newspaper articles from across New England that tell the story of Atlantic cod through headlines.

The Boston Globe
Dec. 19, 1994

A Comeback is No Sure Thing

Then: On Georges Bank, once one of the world’s most plentiful cod fishing spots, areas are closed because of overfishing. “Because US officials rejected warnings for nearly a decade, fishermen depleted Georges Bank to all-time lows,” the article reads.

Now: It’s now been three decades during which officials have ignored warnings. In 2019, the cod population on Georges Bank hit another low. Fisheries managers are failing.

Maine Sunday Telegram
Dec. 18, 1994

Too Many Boats, Too Few Fish

Then: The Telegram dubs the ‘90s the “decade of decline,” noting that overfishing has damaged cod habitat and that “too many boats are taking too many fish.”

Now: The cod habitat damaged in the ‘90s hasn’t recovered, and the fish caught is far above the threshold for cod to recover. Not only that, but fishery managers have opened up some of the closed areas to cod fishing again.

Maine Sunday Telegram
Feb. 5, 1995

Action to Preserve Groundfish is Vital

Then: “No matter what, cod, haddock, and flounder must be protected until they rise again to sustainable levels. No matter how long it takes.” —Maine Sunday Telegram editorial board

Now: The type of strong action that the Sunday Telegram’s editorial board called for in 1995 is what we’re calling for in our petition in 2020: that Atlantic cod must be protected with the most robust possible measures, for as long as it takes.

The Boston Globe
Nov. 17, 1998

How Politics, Denial, and Greed Killed the Fish

Then: A review of “Lament for an Ocean,” a book about the catastrophic collapse of the Newfoundland Atlantic cod fishery, serves as yet another warning for New England’s fishery. Management doesn’t listen.

Now: Newfoundland’s cod fishery has yet to recover, even today. Despite the lessons that could be learned from our northern neighbor’s experience, New England’s fishery managers still seem on the path to repeat this tragic history here in our waters.

Cape Cod Times
Feb.3, 2002

Overfishing in New England

Then: A federal court ruling in CLF’s favor, calls out federal fishery managers for not protecting Atlantic cod, citing a “record of inaction and delay.”

Now: Fishery managers continue to repeatedly bow to short-term commercial interests and fail to prevent overfishing in the New England groundfish fishery. Both the regional New England Fishery Management Council, who writes the plans, and the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, who sign off on them, are at fault.

The Boston Globe
Sept. 19, 2005

No Longer Home of the Cod?

Then: CLF has been calling for sustainable management for nearly as long as cod has been overfished.

“The reason this has been allowed to continue: political pressure applied by the most powerful elements of the fishing industry, supported by a conflict-ridden New England Fishery Management Council,” writes Dr. Priscilla Brooks, CLF's Director of Ocean Conservation.

Now: Cod populations are at even lower levels than they were in 2005, our fishery managers continue to allow overfishing. The political pressure to ignore science is as strong as ever.

The Boston Globe
Sept. 19, 2005

Stellwagen Bank's Unmet Mission

Then: Protected areas are crucial to cod’s comeback, but even places like Stellwagen Bank, a national marine sanctuary, are protected in name only. Since fishing is still allowed, it’s not the haven it could be. Thest protected areas are especially important for older female cod (which scientists colorfully call BOFFFFs or Big Old Fat Fertile Female Fish), who lay exponentially more eggs than their younger counterparts. Overfishing these important mothers makes a cod comeback even harder.

Now: Management today has opened new areas to fishing instead of creating protected areas that would help cod have a healthy future. Now, there are even fewer BOFFFFs and cod are in a more precarious state than ever.

Vineyard Gazette
Nov. 26, 2014

Story of Cod Shows How Outcome of Overfishing Can Be Final

Then: There is a growing awareness that cod is approaching a point of no return where recovery is increasingly difficult. “Maybe we should leave the fish alone for all of us,” the article concludes, acknowledging that to have cod in the future, we may need to stop fishing for it now.

Now: CLF is calling for a halt to cod fishing to rebuild the stocks. Because of decades of poor management that hasn’t ended overfishing, the government now needs to take drastic measures.

Cape Cod Times
Feb. 13, 2020

Petition to NOAA Calls for Prohibition on Cod

Then and now: Atlantic cod is in crisis. Our petition calls for comprehensive change and systemic action to stop the cycle of bad headlines and create a future for cod. For decades, we’ve seen headlines warning of too few fish, poor management, and not enough protected areas. After 30 years of overfishing, we can’t continue on this unsustainable path. That’s why we’re calling for the following: