Editor’s Note: The North American cod fishery is in serious trouble. Last year’s catch was one of the worst on record, and regulators are projecting a 77 percent cut in the cod quota for 2013, a move that will certainly push many of New England’s remaining 420 cod boats out of business. As the Associated Press reports, most consumers won’t notice the change, as distributors will easily replace domestic catches with cod caught in Norway. The northern European country continues to see record catches while its American counterpart is sinking. In 2012, reporter Emily Chou investigated how the American and Norwegian fisheries had moved so far apart. Given the impending cod cuts, Latitude News is re-posting that investigation (this is Part II; read Part I here) to give you the historical context on the stunning decline of American cod.
Compared to their American counterparts, Norwegian fishermen lead a pretty cushy life.
At sea they enjoy single cabins with private bathrooms, hotel-standard food and salaries of around $100,000 annually, according to Tore Roaldnes, a fisherman based in Alesund, Norway’s fishing capital. That’s three to four times the annual income of the average American.
“It’s a good life,” Roaldnes says. “[A] total change from when I started and my father’s period, with no toilet on board.”
Roaldnes is the head of the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association. He and his family have been fishing for generations. Currently, he runs three trawlers. Though life is good, it’s not as if Norway escaped unscathed from the cod collapse that affected other North Atlantic countries.
Historically, the Barents Sea and the North Sea were the primary sources of cod for much of northern Europe. Like in North America — where American, Canadians and others decimated cod — European fishermen over-fished the seas until a near-collapse bankrupted fishermen in Norway and elsewhere. Here’s some great video of the Norwegian fleet in the 1960s, pre-collapse:
“The Norwegians and the Russians were in a race to overfish this cod,” says Daniel Pauly, a professor and fisheries expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
But Norway and Russia reached an agreement to fish less. “The Norwegians actually paid the Russians not to fish in excess,” says Pauly.
The luck of geography helped Norway’s cod in this regard: Oil and gas are the country’s number one export, giving Oslo cash to pay off Moscow.
But paying off the Russians was only one component of saving Norwegian cod. And as the American cod fishery trudges through one of its worst years in history, Norway’s management system could be the model needed to save New England’s cod — and the communities that depend on them.
Big oil, big cod, big luck
Norway’s fisheries management system is remarkably similar to its American counterpart and others around the world. Fisheries management means quotas: scientists tell regulators how many fish live in the sea, and regulators tell fishermen how many fish they are allowed to catch.
But Norway’s cod fishery has a leg up due to a few fortunate twists of fate.
For starters, fickle Mother Nature: for reasons that scientists don’t completely understand, sea conditions in Norway have been more favorable to a cod recovery than they have been in the Gulf of Maine.
And then there’s oil. The same wealth that allowed Oslo to pay Russia not to fish has also helped the economy in general in Norway, which has one of the highest standards of living in the world. The oil and gas industries provide Norwegian fishermen with lucrative jobs in case they can’t put out to sea.
“If they don’t get the money from fishing they can choose to enter oil and gas work onshore,” says Roaldnes. “We were a poor nation and a poor people until the 70s. Due to mostly the oil and gas, we are now filthy rich.”
Plus fish is Norway’s second-largest export. And when fishing is that high up in the hierarchy of a nation’s economy, it becomes a priority in political circles and the rest of civil society, says Mark Kurlansky, author of the 1997 bestseller, “Cod – A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.”
“It’s much easier to get government’s attention on fishery issues in Norway than it is in the U.S.,” says Kurlansky. “A higher percentage of fishermen, a higher percentage of people earning their living on fish.”
The American system of special interests in Washington, in contrast, undercuts efforts to preserve cod stocks, Kurlansky says.
“What tends to happen with fishing measures is they get tacked on to other measures and end up being [part of] this string of compromises,” says Kurlansky. “You have an idea for something you want to do on fish because you’re the senator for Massachusetts, and so the senator from Iowa says ‘Okay, you can tack this onto my corn bill, and I’ll support your fish if you support my corn.’”
The upshot of all this? In 2012, Norway’s quota was 740,000 metric tons, more than 110 times the American cod quota of 6,700 metric tons. And the International Council for Exploration of the Seas recommended a 25 percent increase to Norway’s 2013 quota.
“The 2013 quota will give us the largest catch that we will have seen in 40 years,” says Lisbeth Berg-Hansen, the Minister of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs in Norway. “Thanks to many years of good fisheries management, and our continual work with Russia, we have succeeded in building up the world’s largest cod stocks.”
In cod we trust
New England can’t replicate these three uniquely Norwegian realities — oil, nature and cod’s central position in the Norwegian economy.
But a potentially more important difference between the American and Norwegian fishing industry is this: Norwegian fishermen trust their scientists and regulators.
“We don’t have any other alternative,” Roaldnes says. “We have seen the results.”
When Norway’s fisheries collapsed in the 1970s and 1990s, the consequences were so dire, Roaldnes says, the government was forced to impose harsh fishing regulations. When fishermen saw the cod beginning to return, they realized the scientists and politicians were right to enforce the radical restrictions.
“We have a system which is now based on solid scientific advice,” he says. “The industry, the fleet and fishermen are behind it.”
Kurlansky marvels at the idea of a fisherman giving props to a scientist for doing a good job. He says American fishermen, like their Norwegian counterparts, were also told regulations would help fish stocks bounce back. But the cod haven’t bounced back in the U.S., and this has led to a communication breakdown.
“Fishermen think that scientists don’t know anything because they haven’t spent their life going to sea,” he says. “And the scientists don’t think the fishermen know anything because they haven’t gone to graduate school.”
The result, Kurlansky says, is not only that fishermen, scientist and regulators don’t trust one another — he says they speak different languages.
Retired Gloucester fisherman Vito Calomo lists the restrictions American fishermen have had to follow over the years: bigger mesh sizes, limitations on days at sea, fish sizes and fish weights and temporary and permanent closures of fishing grounds.
“I’ve never seen anything so restrictive in my life,” he says. “I mean, what are we, prisoners?”
Pauly describes Calomo’s attitude as part of the problem in the U.S.
“I would like to sympathize with these fishermen, but every time you hear from New England, you hear a complaint about quota being too low,” he says. “In other words, fishing should be open.”
Regulation is the only way to restore fish to our oceans, Pauly believes. To allow cod stocks to replenish, fishermen must fish less. To him, that’s impossible without government intervention.
And on this point, Calomo actually agrees. The retired fisherman is a fisheries adviser to former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA), and he says smart regulation is a necessity for rebuilding stocks and keeping people working.
“We’re in a hell of a mess,” Calomo says. “And everyone’s pointing fingers and that’s not the way to fix it. We need to get back together.”
But Kurlasky points out that until fishermen, regulators and scientists start speaking the same language, fishing communities will continue to struggle.
“I think that people don’t appreciate how hard it is, and how hard fishermen work for fairly meager amounts of money,” he says. “I mean, when I start hearing about ‘greedy fishermen,’ how the problem is greedy fishermen — if you’re greedy, don’t be a fisherman!”
I can see Norway from here
Daniel Pauly says New England fisheries don’t need to go as far away as Norway for an example of good management. There’s another location much closer to home: Alaska.
“It is like Norway in Alaska,” he says. “You see mild-mannered people, sitting around the table every year, and they agree on quotas, they make money, and there is no conflict.”
Pauly says Alaska’s sustainable fisheries are, in part, a direct result of this civil dialogue. And civil dialogue seems to perpetually evade New England’s cod fishery.
As a result, fishing communities like Gloucester — American’s oldest, in fact — continue to struggle.
“We had a community,” Calomo says. “We had people working together, who went to church together, who bought cars together. It was something that — I don’t know how to get it across — but it’s being lost.”
If there’s one more lesson American fishermen could learn from Norway, it might be to look to the future, not the past.
“I know my history quite well,” says Roaldnes. “I know very few looking back and want to live 50 or 60 years ago. History is history, and I’m focusing on the future.”