Back in the day, John Swienton would turn the Bonnie S. north out of Old Harbor, then steam less than twenty minutes at 8 knots to find his mark off Clay Head. Filling his Thermos cup, he watched the high cliff line for a green mansard roof, checked the amount of water below and made a careful triangulation with a land point to the southwest. When all was aligned, it meant we could set up to catch some cod with hand lines in the island’s cold shallow waters. We slid a few totes of lines with weights and hooks, plus sea clams for bait to the center of the deck, tied off lines to the rail hooks and drifted over good bottom. Hand lining for cod is a simple, effective style of fishing with no real by-catch. Trawlers and long liners do a far more effective job of catching cod, in addition to other ground fish, and in far greater numbers than the few totes we managed in a day, and that’s where the trouble began.
Regulators have worked for years to control the cod stock slide but as is expected in the contentious, argumentative, untrusting world of fisheries management, the vast majority of their decisions only flare that little vein on the side of your head and, depending on the person you ask at any given waterfront, do little to no good or are a total waste of time. Today, the Gulf of Maine stock is at its lowest level since the college crowd started tracking it forty years ago. The biomass is now estimated to be at 3 or 4 per cent of the lowest level of sustainability. In short, cod fish, once so sacred that its image still hangs in the Massachusetts State House, is on the verge of not being able to even sustain itself.
Back in the day, it was an easy commute, chuckling to radio reports of traffic stacked up tight on the Route 10 inbound and later, a misfortune reversed on 95 westbound. For a few mornings each week, we sent down lead weights with baited hooks and kept tight fingers on two lines each, waiting for the soft feel of a hungry cod. Once on the hook, they required a strong, steady constant retrieve to get them to the deck as cod would sense any slack and slip away. These were good days, guided not by a HD screen, but from sights and smarts, from knowing hard from mud bottom just by the feel of a dropped weight or the fuzzy images on early-generation fathometers. A day’s catch reflected the experience of a solid captain and equally so, a solid fish stock. This was the mid-eighties and even on those good days, our catch was a fraction of historical levels.
In light of a fishery on the precipice of collapse and barely able to even reproduce, NOAA has instituted “rolling closures” that will be enforced on what were some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, in the Gulf of Maine and to the east of Massachusetts’ Cape Ann, an area larger than the state of Maine. Boats working the abutting open grounds will have a trip limit of 200 pounds, which gives them some space to retain a few as by catch when targeting other ground fish, not just kick them back through the scuppers. The following move may be to reduce next year’s total catch limit to 200 metric tons. In 1982, when cod first became a fish of extensive research and monitoring, the catch was 22,000 metric tons.
Back in the day, Vikings survived on codfish they dried on deck, Basque’s salted it for supper and commerce with the Catholics, early European invaders to North America wrote of catching them, “not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” In more modern times, codfish has served man as the fishing economy’s backbone and we have leaned on it heavily. The richest shallows of the Grand and Georges Banks have been worked for hundreds of years. Her close genetic cousins, haddock, hake and whiting, continue to be harvested in great numbers but it was cod, with her snow white flesh so prized for the plate, which was hit the hardest.
When a fishery is ready to implode, people become magicians, blurring and confusing with misdirection. While the recreational fisherman touts his experience on the water of catching a few fish under a lazy sun, taking home a very modest limit, it is the working fisherman who is accused of eviscerating the stocks and that’s simply to deceive the eye. Although certainly true that commercial fishermen caught the lion’s share of ground fish, that’s only half the truth; the other is that we the people bought and ate all that fish and since the consumer beats the heart of successful capitalism, we all share responsibility. Magic lies in our innate ability to remember selective highlights of our past for contemporary rhetoric, recreating those good old days as a means of erasing the damage we did, focusing on our catch as if we were solo on the sea, even when we knew that sea floated hundreds and hundreds doing the same work. Collapse isn’t a sufficient word to describe this terrible and once-preventable loss. Last week, the pool winner on a local party boat was a twenty pound cod, with the day’s average catch being a paltry five pounds. Cod fish cakes have become just fish cakes, fish and chips is an obscure term; Lord only knows what a fish stick is. Local menus feature baked broiled or fried scrod, a literary sleight of hand for some random type of white fish, used increasingly as real cod became too expensive. Scrod is an American bastardization of the Dutch word scrood, roughly translated as a piece or a chunk of fish.
Back in the day, fishermen had it good and not just the guys with commercial licenses. Drifting off Clay Head, working hand over hand, hauling big cod over the open stern, we were the lucky ones. Cod was the fish that fed nations, boosted trade, even started wars, but now thanks to our insatiable appetite for that fine white flesh, scrood might be better spelled scrued.