Brian J. Rothschild: “‘Where have all the cod gone?’ and the sustainability imperative”


Back in early January, an op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times that raised some eyebrows among the fisheries science community of the Northeast.  As recent news reports have highlighted, it is no secret that local cod stocks are dwindling to historic lows.  As such, there are many around the table in the highly polarized fisheries community ready to point the finger of blame  to explain how we got here.  Still, the picture remains unclear.

The Jan. 2 NYT op-ed was written by famed fisheries author and historian Jeffery Bolster, best known for his 2012 publication The Mortal Sea. From the publisher’s website:

“While overfishing is often thought of as a contemporary problem, Bolster reveals that humans were transforming the sea long before factory trawlers turned fishing from a handliner’s art into an industrial enterprise. The western Atlantic’s legendary fishing banks, stretching from Cape Cod to Newfoundland, have attracted fishermen for more than five hundred years. Bolster follows the effects of this siren’s song from its medieval European origins to the advent of industrialized fishing in American waters at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Along the same lines of thought, Bolster’s more recent op-ed focuses more directly on the current cod crisis, suggesting in fact that it is nothing new.  He provides ample historic evidence to suggest that dwindling cod stocks should not be examined under a contemporary microscope, but rather broad historic trends all point directly to the situation at hand.  He also suggests rather broadly that in terms of “how did we end up here?”- the system is to blame:

“If there is any lesson in this story of large-scale, long-term environmental degradation, it is not that fishermen were (or are) to blame, or that scientists were (or are) to blame, or that politicians were (or are) to blame. The system was (and is) to blame. Our system of exploiting nature’s resources, with its checks and balances, its desire for prosperity and security, its willingness to honor a multiplicity of voices, and its changing sense of “normal” is insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depends.

In response to Bolster’s opinion piece, UMass Dartmouth Professor and world-renowned fisheries scientist Brian J. Rothschild published his own op-ed in the SouthCoast Times yesterday.  Brian Rothschild is the president of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries and founding dean and Montgomery professor emeritus at the school for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth:

“In ‘Where Have All the Cod Gone’ (New York Times, Jan. 2) history professor W. Jeffrey Bolster claims that the ‘… recent ban on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine (GOM) was an important step toward restoration.’ He thinks that the present low levels of cod in the Gulf of Maine are the ‘tragic consequence of decision makers’ unwillingness to steer a precautionary course in the face of environmental uncertainties’ and that “decisions could have been made to exploit fish stocks more sustainably’ over the last 150 years. He states “overfishing has been the norm for a very long time.’

But Bolster’s analysis is an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of this important conservation issue. And in a broader sense, it is symptomatic of how we misunderstand and oversimplify our conservation and sustainability issues, and how this limits our ability to develop efficient and cost-effective solutions.”

In conclusion, Dr. Rothschild summarizes that Bolster’s recent NYT opinion drastically oversimplifies the crisis and fails to present any logical or applicable solutions to the issue at hand.  He also argues that Bolster’s piece goes so far as to mislead the public and regulators on a level that distorts the true challenges we face at present.

As always, we at Turner’s urge our guests and readers to educate themselves on the issues and form their own opinions on the current fisheries management challenges facing the Northeast.