Land Of The Cod: Where Have All The Fish Gone?

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

Holy mackerel! Some fish story! Harvard’s School of Public Health declared last week in a beefy report that eating fish reduces the risk of coronary death by 36 percent and other causes of death by 17 percent. A similar study released last week by the Institute of Medicine of the Academy of Sciences, although not as sanguine, stated that fish consumption—particularly fatty fish like mackerel and salmon,  “may” lessen the risk of heart disease.

Fish, no doubt, is back on the plate again, though still recovering from some bad spin doctoring over nasty PCB and dioxin contaminants. Both studies conclude that shellfish and finfish—high in protein and low in saturated fat—offer clear health benefits to most consumers, not to mention the culinary pleasures, with the caveat that young children and pregnant woman shun the most contaminated species.

“Seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health,” said Dr. Darius Mozaffarian, an author of the Harvard study.

Anticipating results of the studies, restaurants have wasted little time in baiting customers and landing higher prices for the catch. For example, a lobster dish of one and three quarter ounces is now being offered in a New York bistro for $42, that’s $8-a-bite, according to The New York Times.

But hold on to your wallets. Demand may soon surpass the supply, the real fish story here. Fish landings in some ports are off as much as 95 percent in the last ten years, and local cod—once so plentiful that English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold in the1600s named a narrow spit of land after the fish—are as scarce today as a seat at your favorite waterfront eatery in July.

The problem: overfishing the fishery—from Georges Bank to the Pacific. “The U.S. fishing industry is sinking as the catch dwindles and a way of live vanishes," Business Week noted in a September special report. "The size of the problem is enormous. Even in the face of ever-tighter rules, the list of overfished species that may not be commercially viable for decades has barely budged. Of 67 depleted fish stocks a decade ago, 64 remain scarce…It’s a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, the economic textbook description of why farmers overgraze on public lands. Each farmer seeks to maximize the benefit of letting his cattle graze. So with no individual incentives to conserve, in the end, the grass on the commons is destroyed for all.”

So it is with fish. The solution: across-the-board implementation and strict enforcement of fishing quotas, insists Paul Parker, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham, a nationally-recognized organization devoted to aligning protection of the oceans with the economic interests of the fishing community. “The problem, most simply put, is there is not enough fish,” he says.

Parker is optimistic that the fishery can rebound, but it will take more than the public’s appetite for native scrod with a side of asparagus; it will require a collective effort to preserve the way of life of those who go down to the sea in ships.

 

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