The legend of the codfish is woven with many well-worn tales in New England, where a century ago schools of cod swam so thickly they could be scooped up in baskets from thigh-high water near shore. Cod was the symbol for New England and for the rich fishery that was the backbone of the regional economy. Vineyard fishermen built wooden boats that they named after Noman's Land, the island where they salted and dried their codfish catch on the rocks in the sun before taking it to market.
Today the storied cod has all but vanished from the places where it was once abundant - including the underwater shoals of Georges Bank. And so the modern-day biography of the cod is written in an escalating war of words among scientists who study groundfish stocks, marine conservationists who want to protect the resource and fishermen who make their living from the sea.
Scientists train their nets on the biology beneath the ocean's surface, counting heads, so to speak, and analyzing fish stocks for age and gender. Precise and detailed, the work forms the basis for fishing regulations. Fishermen, who are now caught in an epic struggle for their livelihoods, often dispute the work of the scientists, calling it flawed and maintaining that fish stocks run in cycles. Marine conservationists claim bluntly that the dwindling numbers stem from years of overfishing, and they blame regulators for not being tough enough in protecting the resource.
It all leads to a single question: Is the traditionally rich New England fishery disappearing or simply changing?
A special report published in today's newspaper sheds light on the many angles in this complicated story. In March of last year Gazette reporter and photographer Mark Alan Lovewell traveled to Georges Bank for ten days on board the Albatross IV, a scientific research vessel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report grew out of that trip, one leg of a larger trip that sampled waters from New Jersey to the Gulf of Maine.
Listen to the words of scientists aboard the Albatross IV, concerned conservationists and also second generation commercial fishermen on the Vineyard:
"We could have a looming collapse of codfish stocks," warns David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
"Cod for us is the poster child of everything wrong with fisheries management in New England," declares Priscilla Brooks, director of marine conservation for the Conservation Law Foundation.
"We won't be able to keep fishing as we've done for generations," says Capt. Gregory Mayhew of Chilmark. "It gets harder and harder to make a living."
The story of the codfish on Georges Bank is the story of a disappearing New England fishery, an endangered species in its own right. And if the fishery is to be saved, it will require the full participation of scientists, regulators, politicians - and also Islanders whose heritage is steeped in the sea around them.