Boston Globe
September 19, 2005


By Priscilla M. Brooks and Roger Fleming

By the 18th century, cod had lifted New England from a distant colony
of starving settlers to an international commercial power.
From "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World" by Mark

Stories of New England's legendary abundance of Atlantic codfish
abound, telling of schools of cod so dense one could scoop them up
with baskets. In 1895, a 6-foot cod weighing 211 pounds was caught
off the Massachusetts coast. Just over 100 years later, we could lose
the cod, the fish that contributed so greatly to New England's
economic independence and, ultimately, helped give rise to our nation.

Last week federal fisheries scientists released their first stock
assessment of cod in more than three years. It is filled with bad
news. The Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod populations have
plummeted 25 and 21 percent, respectively, since 2001, and scientists
now estimate that they are at only 10 and 23 percent, the minimum for
sustainable levels. How could this once abundant fish become so
imperiled ?

The answer is simple: Fishermen have fished cod at unsustainable
levels for over 25 years. The reason this has been allowed to continue
is also easy to understand: political pressure applied by the most
powerful elements of the fishing industry, supported by a conflict-
ridden New England Fishery Management Council.

To add insult to injury, only a little more than one year ago fishery
managers designed a plan known as Amendment 13 authorizing continued
overfishing of Georges Bank cod until 2009. Yet even those excessively
high fishing rates were exceeded in 2004 by 14 percent. For Gulf of
Maine cod the statistics were just as grim -- fishermen fished at
nearly three times the allowable rate.

Remarkably, the federal government maintains that these stock declines
are part of its grand plan to rebuild cod populations over the next
two and a half decades. This reasoning must be from an alternative
universe -- a rebuilding plan that drives a fish population to near
collapse, and predicts this will fuel a rebound? We have only to look
to Canada to see what happens when excessive fishing drives cod to
collapse. The Canadian government placed a moratorium on most of its
eastern cod fisheries over 10 years ago, resulting in 40,000 lost jobs
-- while the cod have yet to return.

Moreover, the threat to this legendary resource does not end with
Amendment 13. The Bush administration, acting through the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries
Service (NOAA Fisheries), has initiated efforts that would further
weaken fishery management laws. Instead of requiring an end to
overfishing immediately, proposed rule changes would authorize the
"phasing-in" of an end to overfishing (putting off the necessary
catch reductions until years later). Further, current guidelines
specify that overfished populations must be rebuilt within 10 years
unless it is biologically impossible to do so. The proposed changes
would eliminate this requirement in favor of a more discretionary time
limit, lengthening the rebuilding time frame and increasing the risk
that severely depleted populations will be unable to rebuild to
healthy levels or collapse altogether.

The efforts to undermine our fisheries laws will apparently not stop
there. Congress will soon consider the reauthorization of the nation's
primary fishery management law -- the Magnuson Stevens Fishery
Conservation and Management Act. Although the president's Ocean
Commission recommended strengthening fisheries law, draft proposals
from NOAA Fisheries would weaken the requirement to end overfishing
and delay stock rebuilding. Further, the changes would exempt
fisheries management decisions from the National Environmental Policy
Act, which requires government agencies to disclose and assess the
environmental effects of proposals.

For centuries, cod has been the backbone of the New England fishing
community. It possesses great vitality due to its size, strength, and
ability to feed on just about anything. It inhabits one of the most
biologically productive ecosystems in the world -- the Gulf of Maine
and Georges Bank. But, as Mark Kurlansky writes in his book "Cod":
"If ever there were a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod --
the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an openmouthed
species greedier than cod."

What we need are stronger, not weaker, laws. We also need to reform
our fishery management councils who, together with regulators at NOAA
Fisheries, must demonstrate the strength necessary to draft fishery
management plans that restore and protect the health of the ecosystem,
the fish it supports, and the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on

Priscilla M. Brooks is director of the Conservation Law Foundation's
marine conservation program. Roger Fleming is the foundation's senior

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company