NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — European sailors in the 1600s, and Indigenous people before them, discovered cod as the first plentiful fishery on Maine’s coast, long before even lobster.
But the species has sharply declined in recent decades, and a governing body is setting new fishing rules to try to bring the population back.
The New England Fishery Management Council announced a new, 10-year cod management plan that includes catch limits for fishermen. Tom Nies is the executive director of the council that regulates the region’s fisheries.
"It’s extremely low right now compared to where it has been historically," he said of the popular white fish.
As reported by the Associated Press, annual catch totals in the early 1990s were around 20 million pounds. In 2021, Maine fishermen hauled in 50,000 pounds.
Though the population declined quickly, it’s going to take serious work to bring it back up.
"There are no magic answers," Nies shrugged. "All you can do is keep trying."
Maine fishermen aren't trying to catch cod these days, said Ben Martens, president of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association. His organization placed cod as the only fish on its logo.
"Cod was what we built New England on the back of," he said. Now, it's happenstance when a groundfisherman pulls one up in their net.
Martens said that while they sometimes disagree with federal regulators on the data points, his fishermen are equally invested in bringing the fish back from the brink.
In a way, that's what makes the council's job difficult. These days, it's not fighting fishermen to stop overfishing. Jamie Cournane has spent a decade with the council and heads its groundfish work. Instead, she explained, they’re up against our changing planet.
"Some of the biggest challenges to try and rebuild the stock have to do with factors outside of fishing which include those environmental conditions, that changing climate," Cournane said. "And that’s something that cod is facing right now."
The good news for any concerned fishermen: catch limits won’t change for the next two years, making the process gradual. The bad news? After that, the council won’t know how strict to be until they look at the catch numbers from those two years.
"Fishermen, in particular, are eternally hopeful that the next year is going to be better and there will be more fish in the ocean," Martens said.
As everyone hopes for a revival of Maine’s most historic catch, they'll be holding their breath for the near future.