After nearly four decades of fishing, this season might be David Goethel's last.
The New England Fisheries Management Council has cut the amount of cod fishermen like Goethel can catch in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent.
“For us, it basically means we’re all done," Goethel says.
Under the new limits, he says he'd reach his quota of cod in just a few days of fishing. And other fish are effectively off limits, or out of reach, for his kind of boat and equipment.
While today’s catch, and the number of fishermen chasing it, are a fraction of what they were a half-century ago, the council’s decision is devastating for those like Goethel who have hung on.
“I’m 59 years old. This is all I’ve ever done," he says. "How you’re going to pay for things? I have no idea. Basically, if we don’t work, we don’t eat. Pretty simple.”
Overfishing, to be fair, isn't the only cause of this collapse. Climate change--specifically, the warming of the waters off New England--also played a role, as an editorial in the New Hampshire Union-Leader pointed out.
In 2005, Institute of Marine Research scientist Kenneth Drinkwater wrote in the ICES Journal of Marine Science that a temperature increase of 4 degrees celsius would lead to collapse of the cod fishery off Georges Bank and sharp decline in the Gulf of Maine as the cod migrated north. "It is quite clear that, with future warming, there will be a northward migration of cod," he wrote.
In the past year, the temperature in the Gulf of Maine reached record highs. "At some point, (the gulf) is going to be inhospitable to cod. We're getting close to that now," said Jeffrey Runge, biological oceanographer at the University of Maine. In the past four years, the surface temperature in the gulf has risen between 2 and 3.5 degrees fahrenheit a year, more than enough to cause the near-collapse due to migration that Drinkwater predicted in 2005.
The government acts as though the only issue is overfishing. So it does what it always has done: it cuts the quotas.
(How continuing to fish a population that's diminishing makes sense in any context is beyond me, mind.)
In a post at Lawyers, Guns and Money entitled "The End of Cod", after describing a visit to a Cape Cod where a Wendy's advertised a fish sandwich made with North Pacific cod, Erik Loomis called for a government strategy to retrain these displaced workers and others facing similar challenges.
There actually are two things we can do. Neither will bring the fish back, but that’s a done deal. First, as the first linked article suggested, we can develop alternative economies for these fishing ports around wind energy. That’s very different work than fishing, but it’s something. Some of these cities–New Bedford for instance–have developed reasonable tourist industries and have attracted some young people to live there and build some kind of alternative economies. Many–Fall River for instance, a mere 15 miles from New Bedford–have not. This is the best and most obvious way to create at least some jobs based upon harvesting natural resources, albeit in a very different way.
The second thing we can do is to take some kind of national responsibility for workers who lose their jobs because of resource depletion. There’s actually significant precedent for this in the Pacific Northwest. The Clinton Forest Plan that provided some finality to the old growth/spotted owl logging wars in the 1980s and early 1990s provided retraining programs for loggers and mill workers who lost their jobs due to the industry’s disappearance. My own father took advantage of this program, although he later found work in another mill.
Even more interesting is the case of the Redwood Employee Protection Program. The first real battle in the Northwest over the forests, really the precursor to the spotted owl, was the successful campaign to expand Redwood National Park. When the bill was signed by President Carter in 1978, it included REPP, a program that provided significant payments to workers displaced by the mills that had to close down. They received direct payments from the federal government until 1984 to build a bridge until they could find other work. The generosity of this was controversial–Carter himself was quite skeptical. And in many ways it didn’t work that well. There were battles over who should qualify–were the mills shutting down because of a lack of timber or because of globalization and mechanization? Moreover, there were some disappearing funds and management issues. We don’t need to get into these details now. What’s notable though is that at least one time the federal government decided to expand the welfare state, however tentatively, to workers put out of work in order to save rare resources.
Certainly it would be easier to do this in a densely-populated and prosperous New England than in marginal Newfoundland.