Not far from New York Harbor there is life in the cold, deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Underwater, where the continental shelf gently slopes away from the land and out to the edge, can be found a diversity of marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks, shrimps, squids, jellies, algae, and a wide hodge-podge of fish, from billfish to wolf-fish, permits to halibuts.
This narrow strip of briny underwater acreage is rich with life due to a variety of reasons. The combination of ample sunlight and nutrients washed in from nearby rivers is an important source. Together they help create the indigents needed for photosynthesis to take place. From this, plants and phytoplankton surge in population for animals to eat up a food chain. Rapid moving currents, including the Gulf Stream, also transport nutrients along the shelf to funnel in food and microscopic algae to feed wildlife.
Over the last several years, one fish in particular has been making a slow, but steady comeback in the offshore environment of the northwestern North Atlantic. It was a fish that was so plentiful at one time that it filled the cold waters of New England’s rocky coastline, so much so that early Europeans named a large peninsula in Massachusetts after the fish.
Cod, as declared by both the Boston Globe and the New Scientist, are making a comeback, after decades of strict government regulations. Last year, the Boston Globe wrote that the Canadian fishing authorities released a report in spring 2016 suggesting “cod are finally making a comeback….The report found that the adult population of northern cod had more than doubled in size over the past three years, and it estimates that the spawning stock will double again within the next three years — bringing it two-thirds of the way back to a healthy fishery.”
It’s not just in New England and Canada either. Nearby recreational fisherman out of New York City and along Long Island to Montauk and down the Jersey Shore to Point Pleasant for the last several years have been finding more cod while angling out in the ocean during winter or early spring cod fishing trips. Boat captains out of Montauk are declaring on websites they are catching codfish weighing between 10 to 40 pounds, with an occasional fish over 40 pounds. In other places, boat captains are enthusiastically telling people with the right gear they can fish offshore and catch a limit of 10 fish weighing between 18 to 25 pounds with some trips getting bigger fish up to 40 pounds. Everyone it seems is affirming that codfish are rebounding across the region.
If true, this will be a remarkable recovery of a fish that was nearly wiped away from the northwest Atlantic. For over 500 years, cod was a cherished and seemingly endless fish. It abounded in the Atlantic and provided a livelihood for tens of thousands of Newfoundland and New England fishermen. In 1992 all that changed. After many years of overfishing and the steady development of more advancing fishing technology, government officials in Ottawa discovered the codfish population had decreased by 96% since the 1850s, and quickly enacted a total moratorium on commercial cod fishing. Overfishing caused thousands of Newfoundland fisherman and subsequently New England fishermen to find a new line of work, ending a long-standing way of life. To find out more about the remarkable history of the cod fishery, it was expertly told by author Mark Kurlanksy in his book simply entitled, Cod.
Nearly 25 years later, a ban is still in place off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of Maine. While the cod population is slowly rebounding, fisheries scientists in Canada assert it will be many more years before commercial cod fishing opens up again, especially in a sustainable way.
Other stocks of cod exist on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: the Norwegian Arctic stock in the Barents Sea and the Icelandic stock. Most codfish for human consumption nowadays comes from these European stocks.
Honestly, this should have never happened if fish populations were better managed and people stopped exploiting nature’s resources for short-term profit. Cod are habitually a hardy fish.
Atlantic cod love to live in cold, deep waters. They are most often found on the bottom at depths of 200 to 400 feet and at temperatures between 34 to 46 degrees F.
Like most fish which have evolved to live in frigid waters, they have developed an antifreeze protein that binds to tiny ice crystals in a body, inhibiting further growth and preventing a fish from freezing. Due to living in chilly waters, codfish seem resistant to many diseases that might affect other fish that swim in warmer waters and don’t have antifreeze proteins.
Cod are known to live for over 20 years, and can grow about 6 feet long and weigh over 200 pounds. No wonder fishermen once called them the “king of North Atlantic waters.” The average, though, is usually about 51 inches and around 77 pounds. In the deep, Cod will feed on shrimp, krill, clams, crabs, mussels, lobsters, sea urchins, herring, shad, and mackerel.
For a long time, fishermen have known that Newfoundland stocks of Atlantic cod are migratory fish. In the winter, cod will undertake an extensive journey down the continental shelf to waters off New York and New Jersey for slightly warmer oceanic temperatures. Cod will eventually return to colder waters in the Gulf of Maine and off Newfoundland to spawn.
While the recovery of the cod population is a good thing, there are still threats to its long-term survival. Global climate change, for example, has the potential to warm waters and diminish populations to the point where scientists are unsure if it will ever recover. According to a October 29, 2015 article in the New York Times, “From 2004 to 2013, marine scientists discovered “temperatures rose faster in the Gulf of Maine than in 99.9 percent of the global ocean.” The article goes on to state that “warmer waters might result in young cod starving from a lack of prey or dying from increased exposure to predators before they reached maturity.”
Who knows for sure if cod populations will ever be large enough to create a sustainable fishery? Marine ecosystems are highly complex and warming waters in the North Atlantic pose new complications. Strict federal regulations seem to have shown success in helping to bring back the population, albeit ever so slowly. Hopefully, upcoming years will prove to be kind for both people and fish, and cod will once again be the king of North Atlantic waters.
To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at http://www.nyharbornature.com