Cod in Decline – The Long View of Fishery Sustainability

After years of improvement in the stocks, North Sea Cod is once again on the decline, and the period of optimistic, certified “sustainability” now seems to be over. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a body that issues certifications of “sustainability” to inform consumers, had to withdraw its certification of North Sea Cod’s sustainability in 2019. The story of how we got here, and what this shift means, is one that resonates with the wider story of fisheries in our modern era.

Though images of felled trees, burning forests, oil-tarred birds and stranded polar bears may be the most commonplace and evocative representatives of the dangers facing our environment, the less visible and perhaps less sympathetic fisheries of the world hold just as important a role in the preservation of global sustainability as any cause. Our interactions with them being mainly marketized, it may be tempting to think of fisheries in the same way one would about cows, sheep, chickens and other livestock, as somehow separate from wilderness and thus the environment, and as such not subject to questions of endangerment or depletion. But fisheries, i.e. concentrated fishing areas where fish live and spawn, are vital both in the economic bonds linking the bounties of nature to our basic needs, and in the story of climate change and environmental degradation.

Atlantic cod is an unfortunately good example of this, as the trajectory of its fortunes follows the major shifts that have defined our interactions with nature throughout recent history. While the history of cod fishing goes much further back, the 19th century saw a boom in cod fishing with the new capabilities provided by the industrial revolution. New fishing nets and steam engines meant that more fish could be caught with greater ease, and railroads opened inland markets to fresh fish for the first time, creating a boom in demand. As the forerunner of industrialization, the UK was also in the vanguard of industrialized fishing, expanding its operations well beyond its immediate borders. This late 19th century boom led to a precipitous decline in the stocks of many fish, though the Atlantic cod were hit particularly badly. Trawlers scraped the bottom of the seabed where cod spawn, effectively destroying their ability to rejuvenate the stocks. This shocked both the local fishing communities who came to the brink of collapse when British trawlers started depleting the fish they depended upon, and the British fishers themselves, who pushed for international agreements to reign in this new fishing boom.

The intervening crises of WWI, the Great Depression, and then WWII stymied any efforts to organize regulations on fishing, but also gave local communities such as Iceland some breathing space to recuperate and build fishing fleets that could compete with their UK counterparts. Yet the peace following the end of WWII unleashed the fleets of the developed nations once again, and cod stocks went into panic-inducing declines. It was only with the waging of the “Cod Wars” by Iceland, a series of legal and political disputes which saw Icelandic ships physically pushing British fishing boats out of Icelandic waters, that international law moved to change the status quo. What resulted was the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, which stipulated that waters up to 200 nautical miles out from a nation’s coast is under their exclusive control, as opposed to the older three miles.

With this, and a series of reforms to fishery management that ran through the 1980s and 1990s, cod stocks regained some of their health, a trend that continued into the 2000s, and can be seen in North Sea cod fisheries being certified as “sustainable” in 2017. The combination of purposeful measures to protect sustainability, and increased local control by countries like Iceland, for which cod fishing is an existential issue, things seemed more promising.

The recent downturn has belied this optimistic outlook, but in some ways should not be surprising. Fishery science is still a relatively uncertain science, and as such its ability to measure the sustainability and health of a certain fishery is limited. Indeed, the improvement in the outlook of cod fisheries in the 2000s, when measured against a much longer trend from the late 19th century until today, does not seem as decisive as when compared to the period immediately before it.

A study in 2010 in Nature argues that this is part of the problem: that in understanding fisheries, the perspective to be taken needs to be one of much broader scales, both in time and space. It isn’t the past five or even ten years that tell us the ecological trends, but the past 100; it isn’t changes in a limited local fishery that should dictate our concerns, but the entire ecosystem. Proclamations by private groups like the MSC, the majority of whose funding comes from licensing, shouldn’t determine policymaking; the broader trends, spanning decades and entire ecosystems, should. If we are going to face the environmental upheavals sending shockwaves through our whole planet, then this is the scale on which we need to think and act.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 27, 2016.

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