Sunday, August 16, 2020

Atlantic Cod and Striped Bass, Two Massachusetts Icons

It saddens me to admit that we are nearing the end of summer programming and soon most of the summer staff will be headed back to fall classes in one form or another. But instead of dwelling on the inevitable we decided to make the most of the time we have left. This week we were at Malibu Beach in Dorchester. I had never been there before, but we had three beautiful (and hot) days to enjoy it. Malibu

Filming for our video
Beach is located in a protected inlet across from a marina. Familiar saltmarsh plants such as Phragmites, Spartina alterniflora, and Spartina patens border its relatively calm waters. We attempted to make a fun, yet informative, video describing several activities that can be done at any beach, such as fishing, sand raking, and crabbing. Between filming shots we played some Save the Harbor classic card games, Uno and Presidents. Lots of laughs were shared this week and hopefully we can have a few more before the end of programming!

Fishing and New England go hand in hand. It’s hard to think of the Northeastern United States without picturing the Atlantic Ocean. Since colonial times, and millenia before that, those who have called this region home have found a bounty available to them in the coastal waters. I recently finished a great book by Mark Kurlansky, Cod, where he delves deep into the past, present, and future of cod and the groundfishing industry. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of cod and its role on the global stage. Of the many things I learned while reading this book, something I found particularly interesting was that the pilgrims decided to settle in Massachusetts in order to make their living in the catching, salting, and selling of cod. Kurlansky describes how John Adams, being from Massachusetts, fought for American fishing rights on the Grand Banks off of Canada at the Treaty of Paris to resolve the American Revolution. 

The Atlantic cod is synonymous with Massachusetts. Our state fish, whose likeness can be seen hanging in the State House and emblazoned on Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries uniform, is as Massachusetts as throwing tea into Boston Harbor. One of the biggest problems cod faced was the idea that there were so many it would be impossible to overfish them. As fishing technology became more efficient very few fish could escape the wide reaching nets of commercial trawlers. Instead of

Massachusetts' "Sacred Cod"
understanding that cod stocks were dwindling, fleets would just move to the next fishing spot, chasing the cod to wherever they could be caught until there weren’t enough left to support commercial fishing. By the mid 1990’s cod stocks in the Northwestern Atlantic collapsed and cod became commercially extinct. Many fishermen in New England and Maritime Canada were left unemployed.  I like eating fish, so it would be hypocritical of me to condemn all commercial fishing practices, but there needs to be a balance between profitable harvests and conservation. Plans to rebuild the cod populations in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank are in place, but it’s hard to imagine cod being caught commercially in any great numbers in the near future.

Another book that I’m reading, Fly Fishing Boston by Terry C. Tessein, highlights the striped bass. Stripers, as they are often called by anglers, have a rich history in New England as well. Tessein, referencing the book Striper by John Cole, shares a Captain John Smith quote from 1614 where he describes striped bass being so numerous “‘...that it seemed to me that one mighte go over their backs dreshod”’ (Tessein, 44). This seems to be a common observation from that time period, whether it be of cod, stripers, or Atlantic salmon, early explorers often commented on there being so many fish you could walk on their backs without getting your feet wet. Tessein also remarks that striped bass were the subject of the first conservation law in North America, when the Plymouth Colony, in 1664, forbade the use of striped bass as fertilizer since they were much more valuable in other applications. 

Striped bass were not subject to the same commercial pressure as cod, but the fishery has experienced growth and collapse all the same. Until the 1980’s striped bass were commercially and recreationally caught on the Atlantic coast. Their popularity as a gamefish prompted stocking efforts on the west coast and in lakes throughout the United States. Similar to the cod in the 1990’s, striped bass populations became extremely low in the 80’s. Luckily, thanks to swift management efforts, such as a moratorium in the important spawning grounds of the Chesapeake Bay, striped bass began to rebound. For many years anglers enjoyed catching large numbers of stripers up and down the coast. However, in recent years the striped bass population has been in decline and seems to be on the precipice again. Many states

A schoolie striper my team caught in Revere
that have a striped bass fishery implemented new regulations for 2020, as an attempt to help the populations grow. Massachusetts, along with many other states, created a slot limit for recreational fishermen, only allowing fish between 28” and 35” to be kept, in order to protect the big breeding female striped bass. Cows, as they are affectionately called by anglers, can grow to well over 50” and produce millions of eggs. Massachusetts also mandated that in-line circle hooks must be used if soaking bait for stripers. Circle hooks reduce capture mortality since it is much more difficult to gut hook a fish with one, the idea is fish that are caught outside of the slot can be released with as little harm done as possible.  

As an avid fisherman I can only be optimistic about the future of these two important fisheries. Both for the health of the ecosystem and to maintain the rich tradition of fishing in New England. With better management of these species can ensure the longevity of their stocks. Maybe, some time in the future,  you’ll be able to walk on the backs of cod and striped bass again.

Tight Lines,


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