Follow Marine Biologist Carl Safina as he takes viewers around the world to show us how today's ocean issues are being solved in his PBS series "Saving the Ocean." You can watch full episodes online at the PBS website. Here at A/J he's giving us a behind the scenes look at each episode.

Are cod beginning a recovery in New England? That’s a question we’re looking at for episode eight of our PBS series Saving The Ocean.

For centuries, cod were a major economic driver in New England and Atlantic Canada. They spurred settling of the New World and sent food everywhere from Europe to the Caribbean. They began to falter way back in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they really crashed.

We visited the National Archives outside Boston with noted marine historians Bill Leavenworth and Karen Alexander.

Seeing the stacks and stacks of information was bewildering. But our guides for this expedition led us directly to 150-year-old fishing logbooks that they had used in their research to understand some of the trends in fish populations in and around the Gulf of Maine, Scotian Shelf, and Grand Banks.

One of their main conclusions is that cod and other fish were once about 20 times more abundant than they are now. In other words, we’ve eaten 95 percent of them. And, they say, we also caught so many of their prey fish such as alewives and herring that we starved them, too, leaving them too thin for best reproductive success.

The good news: In parts of the region, haddock, scallops, halibut, and even cod are recovering as a result of strong fishing restrictions of the last decade. Let’s make it a long-term trend

Major closures of fishing areas in the 1990s and tortuously complicated fishing restrictions since have failed to spark a cod recovery. Theories for why they weren’t recovering abounded, from their niche being replaced by dogfish (unlikely in my opinion) to too many herring eating cod eggs and cod larvae. But maybe it was simply that there were too few cod to quickly repopulate the region.

But recently, we’ve been hearing that cod are doing better in southern New England, up to about the mid-coast of Maine. So we went for a look.

With commercial rod-and-reel fisherman Ed Snell, we ventured to Jeffries Ledge, about 20 miles east of Portland Maine. In the company of whales, porpoises, shearwaters and at least one giant ocean sunfish, we dropped our lures to the bottom in 300 feet of water. Within five minutes we had a cod, and quickly had a second. Several times each of our three rods fishing was bent with a cod at once. So it seems like reports of the beginnings of a cod recovery are true. And that means, the fishing regulations may be working. And that means – there’s hope.

Read the next post: The Sacred Island


Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University’s Center for Communicating Science. He has authored 6 books and roughly 200 scientific and popular publications, including features in The New York Times, and National Geographic and a new Foreword to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. He hosts Saving The Ocean on PBS television.


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