Air Date: Week of February 5, 1999
Host Laura Knoy speaks with author Mark Kurlansky about last week’s announcement of government restrictions on cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, a move that has infuriated many fishermen. Recent studies have suggested that cod stocks there are on the verge of collapse. Kurlansky is the author of the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.
ROSENBERG: We're not talking about completely closing the fishery. Although, if we don't take action in the coming months, that probably will have to occur if we delay any longer. But the restrictions will be severe. People will be looking for other things to do.
KNOY: That's Andrew Rosenberg, Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, speaking to Living on Earth last September. He was predicting the government's response to warnings from scientists that cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine had reached dangerously low levels. Now those predictions have come true. Last week the New England Fisheries Management Council agreed to cut the cod catch by 80%, the strictest limit ever on the New England cod fishery. A series of fishing bans are set to go into effect starting in May, and are expected to cost the region $20 million and hundreds of jobs. Government officials say it's the only way to salvage the industry, but many of those who fish the waters maintain that the stocks are as plentiful as they've ever been. Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. He says the discrepancy between scientists' view and that of the fisher folk is nothing new.
KURLANSKY: The fundamental problem is that there is no 100% accurate way of counting fish stocks, so it's basically estimated from what's being caught. And that is not necessarily an indication of what's out there. You know, you can see what's in a net but you can't see what's left behind. The only time you know for sure what's going on is when you have a real tragedy and stocks are just completely gone. So the trick is to stop it some time before that.
KNOY: These restrictions are pretty tough, requiring that the catch be reduced by 80%. What's your sense of these restrictions? Are they too tough? Are they not tough enough?
KURLANSKY: Well, I wouldn't pretend to know what the shape of the stocks are. I think that you're better off being too conservative than allowing too much fishing and realizing you made a mistake. But I think there's also another side to this, and that's that, you know, you're talking about putting a lot of people out of work. You're talking about people who have a vessel that they're mortgaged to the hilt on, and they're paying $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year in insurance, and you're telling them that boat has to sit there tied up and they aren't earning any money. It will ruin them. And there isn't, there really isn't enough done to help these people. You know, there's a budget surplus this year, Clinton says that more should be spent on the military and the Republicans are saying it should be spent on a 10% tax break. But somehow, you know, there's no money to help fishermen.
KNOY: Is the government doing anything to help them?
KURLANSKY: There is no real program, like there is in Canada, to sustain fishermen over a limited period of time so that you could, as an environmental planner, you could say okay, this is what's happening to the fish stocks and we need to cut this down for maybe 6 months. And so for those 6 months we will take care of our fishermen. There's no mechanism like that. The social issue and the environmental issue are managed as though they weren't connected, and of course they're directly connected.
KNOY: Hm. In your book, Mark, about cod, you talk about the importance of cod to this region of the world, in particular. You say it's not just an industry, it's not just a fish. It's a culture.
KURLANSKY: Yeah, I mean, it's very much what New England is about, you know, and an essential component of American history. I mean, if you just think of New England without any fishing ports, without any working fishermen, and places like Point Judith and Gloucester and New Bedford having nothing tied up there but yachts, and no seafood companies and no families living off of the sea, then it would be a real deluding in the culture of New England.
KNOY: Do you think people elsewhere in the United States understand this? That it's not just a fish, it's a culture.
KURLANSKY: No, I don't think they do at all. I think that, you know, the rest of the country has no idea what this is all about, never thinks about fisheries or where fish comes from or who catches it. When I was giving talks in the Midwest people would say, "So, should we be boycotting cod?" And I'd say, (Laughs) "No, don't start boycotting fish. Start writing your Congressman and telling him you're concerned about this issue." I mean, if you can get Indiana and Illinois Congressmen involved in fishery issues, you know, then it would be treated as something of national importance. But unfortunately, right now, it's something of importance to the Pacific Northwest and New England.
KNOY: Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. He joined us from New York City. Thanks for talking with us, Mark.
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