Are New England cod dying off, or have they just moved to colder waters? Though the answer to that question remains in doubt, New England fishermen have been ordered to behave as though the cod are nearly wiped out. Thus, bureaucracy could kill off New England's fishing industry even though it might not be killing off the fish.
Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council cut the cod quota in the Gulf of Maine by 77 percent and off Georges Bank by 61 percent. Some fishermen will be able to fish cod for only a day, or less, this year. The South Coast Today newspaper quoted John Bullard of the National Marine Fisheries Service as saying, simply, "The fish aren't there."
But fishermen say the cod have moved north, and these catch limits will devastate the industry for no good reason. There is scientific evidence to support their claim.
Cod do migrate to colder waters when their native waters warm.
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. This approach is so inflexible and burdensome that even politicians like Carol Shea-Porter and Jeanne Shaheen, reflexive supporters of empowering government to control industries through the regulatory process, have expressed opposition to it.
Maybe last week's action, which could decimate the New England fishing industry, will finally open the eyes of those who assume that bureaucrats always know, and do, what is best.