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Cod Fish Depletion*
November 7, 2002
North Sea Cod Crisis Brings Call for Nations to Act
By CRAIG S. SMITH
ILLELEJE, Denmark, Nov. 3 The cod are disappearing from the deep gray waters that stretch to the horizon from this gull-festooned town, a stark reminder that there is a finite number of fish in the sea and that man's growing appetite for seafood, if left unchecked, could eventually drive many species to extinction.
Scientists warned last month that unless almost all commercial fishing in the North Sea was banned, the cod stocks might soon collapse, meaning that the number of cod necessary to repopulate the overfished region could fall so low that the popular food fish might never recover.
"The cod are now so depleted we're not really sure of their population dynamics," said Henrik Sparholt, a fisheries assessment scientist at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which has advised closing the North Sea to most fishing indefinitely.
Mr. Sparholt said the number of North Sea cod was at its lowest level ever and was half of what was considered the minimum for assured propagation.
The cod crisis is one of many facing the international community as countries compete for thinning stocks in the world's once fish-thick seas. Fish are the last food source hunted on a large scale in the wild, and the United Nations warns that the world's 17 main fisheries are fished at or above sustainable levels.
None of the endangered species of fish affects so many countries and so many people or has such historic significance as cod. Once known as "beef of the sea," it is the world's most popular food fish and was a driving force in the development of the global economy.
Thanks to their lethargic swimming style, cod are easy to catch and have the whitest flesh of all white-fleshed fish. The meat is low in fat, high in protein and easily filleted.
The low fat content makes it easy to cure and made it the perfect fish for marine provisions and international trade before the invention of refrigeration. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, in part, to make money by selling cod to England.
Cod stocks have collapsed before. The fish was once so abundant off the northeastern coast of North America that the Italian explorer John Cabot reported catching them with a bucket in 1497.
But after 500 years of increasingly intensive fishing and repeated warnings that the cod were endangered, they suddenly all but disappeared more than a decade ago. Despite a fishing ban, they have yet to come back in significant numbers.
Thinning cod stocks in the North Sea have worried scientists for years now, and though the European Union has fiddled with quotas and the sizes of net holes larger holes let younger fish survive until they can spawn it has been slow to offer the fish adequate protection.
Part of the problem is that harsher measures would devastate the economies of towns like Gilleleje, where cod fishing is the biggest industry.
"I'm 57, and I have to work another 10 years because I have no pension," said Peter Andersen, winding a heavy green net onto the winch of his 56-foot blue and white trawler docked at the town's nearly empty harbor. "I wouldn't earn a living if I couldn't fish cod."
Hunching against a bitter wind, Mr. Andersen says increasingly restrictive quotas on cod catches have already shortened his annual fishing season from 10 months to 5. He supplements his income by catching lobster but says too many fishing boats are doing the same for the lobster to last if the cod industry is shut down.
Demand for cod rose sharply in the early 1900's after Clarence Birdseye developed his method for freezing food and the fish industry began filleting fish by machine. Then, in 1962, the owner of a McDonald's franchise in Cincinnati invented the Filet-O-Fish sandwich for Catholics who did not eat meat on Friday. Demand for cod surged again.
Today it is eaten in almost every country in the world. To meet demand, competing Danish and Scottish fishing fleets use nets that drag across the seabed and can sweep a mile or more of water free of fish in a matter of hours.
There are some areas where cod remain plentiful around Iceland and in the Barents Sea but the rest of the world's major stocks, relatively distinct populations of the fish that live in a particular region, are thinning rapidly or are already depleted. In the early 20th century it was not unheard of for fishermen to catch man-sized, 200-pound cod, but such old fish are rare these days.
Last year the European Commission put forward a plan devised to help North Sea cod stocks recover, but the fishery ministers of European Union members countries have bickered over the plan because it uses limits on the length of time that fishermen can spend fishing cod instead of quotas on the quantity they can catch.
The switch, intended to combat the chronic underreporting of catches, is unpopular because it could leave some countries with less fish than others if their fishermen were unlucky.
While the ministers argue, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea says the situation has grown increasingly dire. The council, which makes policy recommendations to its 19 member countries, advised last month that until the cod recover, fishing should be banned altogether for most fish in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the waters west of Scotland.
Because many cod are caught as a "bycatch" by crews fishing for other species in the region, the council's scientists want the ban extended beyond cod.
Franz Fischler, the European commissioner responsible for agriculture, rural development and fisheries, has blasted the European Union's fishery ministers for letting the situation go so far.
"It is galling after repeatedly warning of the dire consequences of inaction," he said in a speech delivered after the council made its advice public, "to see our worst fears realized."
Mr. Fischler said that if the European Commission's own scientific committee backs the council's advice when it delivers its report on cod stocks next Monday, he will propose a ban on cod, haddock and whiting fishing in the area, and substantial reductions in the quotas for other fish, until the ministers can agree on a longer-term solution.
But many marine biologists worry that politicians lack the will to sacrifice jobs for cod. With stocks so low, Mr. Sparholt says, anything less than a total, indefinite ban may leave the cod population vulnerable to nature's periodic environmental shocks, like changes in water temperature or a sudden drop in the food supply.
Such environmental variations are blamed in part for the failure of cod to rebuild their numbers off the North American coast. Scientists suspect that dwindling schools of capelin, a tiny fish eaten by cod, have hurt the cods' fertility there when its numbers were already reduced.
"You have to manage the stock so that it can cope with what nature has given before and will give in the future," Mr. Sparholt said over a plate of pickled herring in one of Copenhagen's canalside restaurants.
But even if the North Sea cod are saved, the pressure will likely move to other fisheries to meet the voracious appetite for fish sticks, fish and chips and fried fish sandwiches or it will go to other species. The more plentiful pollock, for example, is increasingly being used as a substitute for cod.
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