For years, Scituate fishermen have braved icy seas looking for cod, but since December, they have been throwing many of the fish back in.
With the help of The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, fishermen and scientists have started tagging cod, inserting $300 trackers into about 130 fish thus far to better understand and protect their spawning.
“It’s like E-ZPass,” explained Chris McGuire, a marine program director with the Conservancy, in a phone interview. “…The tags that are inserted in fish are like the things you have on your windshield. We put 38 receivers under water. Any time a tagged fish swims in range of a receiver, it records that information.”
The goal is to more accurately locate spawning cod habitats to institute small-scale fishing closures. The closures would protect the spawning cod – the bread and butter for local fishermen - while still allowing the overall industry to continue.
Several Scituate fishermen have helped spearhead the program. Though unusual for fishermen to request increased fishing restrictions, McGuire said that’s the end goal.
“You get to a tipping point,” McGuire said. “People recognize they need to be protected from themselves. You have these guys who have been fishing out of Scituate for decades have seen the population go up and down, but recently they are concerned that they and other fishermen are fishing too hard at this time of year when the cod are all gathered together for reproducing. If that’s interrupted, there is no future of cod fishing on the South Shore coast. It’s a short-term cost for a long-term gain.”
The $150,000 project is a partnership with the Conservancy, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, the Division of Marine Fisheries, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
Optimism abounded during a Wednesday press event, where representatives from each group came to discuss the issue and hopefully a solution.
Frank Mirarchi of Scituate said the project will help fine tune fishery management where other programs have failed.
“For the first time in my recollection, we’re in danger of losing the fisheries,” he said.
A fisherman since 1961, Mirarchi said quota limits, trip limits, size limits, and wide-scale closures have done little to affect the dwindling cod population. Recent changes in regulations have only made things worse, he said.
“There is a way to fix it,” he said. “…It’s not to challenge, but inform management.”
The project will enable small fishing companies a chance to exert influence in a regulatory field largely dominated by the interests of larger fishing groups, said fisherman Stephen Welch.
The opportunity for change motivated Scituate's Kevin Norton to volunteer his boat to bring scientists to cod-spawning locations. Without a change, he predicted. the fishing industry would be extinct in Scituate in two to three years.
State officials agreed that changes are vital. According to David Pierce, deputy director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, the cod population has become so low that the secretary of commerce declared a “groundfish failure” in 2012. Fishermen await disaster assistance while changes are implemented.
“Any increased understanding we can have…in how cod can be protected…is worth pursuing in a serious way,” Pierce said.
The project is still in the beginning stages. Receivers were put in the water midway through mating season. As many as 130 fish have been tagged so far, with another 20 to be tagged in a future trip.
Scientists have already started collecting the transmitted data, and will go at the end of spawning season at the end of January to collect the information again. From there, data will be reviewed and a plan put in place to study cod locations next spawning season.
“Next year is when we’ll reap the benefits of this work,” said Bill Hoffman, an aquatic biologist from the Division of Marine Fisheries.
Yet regulatory shifts are already in the queue.
Pierce said he has suggested closures in the area currently being studied to the federal group that creates fishing regulations. As more information becomes available about specific spawning locations, he hopes to narrow down that closure location and timing.