In December of 2011, five days before Christmas, cod fishermen in the Gulf of Maine received a letter from government regulators. New assessments showed the New England cod stocks were not going to recover by 2014, as had previously been expected. Catch limits—the amount of cod that fisherman are allowed to bring in—would need to be cut.
Over the next four years, catch limits would decrease by more than 95 percent, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of fishermen across New England.
Since 2013, researchers from Northeastern have been working with these fishing communities to understand how the failure of the cod fishery affected the fishermen’s well-being.
The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help regulators better account for the social impacts of management decisions, as well as the ecological ones.
“There is policy in place that says that we have to make decisions to protect the fish stocks, prevent overfishing, and stimulate recovery,” says Steven Scyphers, an assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences and lead author of the study. “But there are also layers to those policies that say that we have to think about the well-being of fishing communities and think about managing for people.”
After the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the Northeast groundfish fishery, which includes cod, an economic disaster, the researchers conducted phone surveys of commercial cod fishermen.
In three separate surveys, conducted in 2013, 2015, and 2018, more than half of all the fishermen demonstrated moderate to severe levels of psychological distress. Some continued acting as though everything were fine. Others tried to actively avoid things or places that reminded them of the situation.
“They’ll avoid going to the dock, or they’ll avoid going to the bait house,” says Scyphers, whose co-authors were J. Steven Picou and Northeastern professor Jonathan Grabowski. “They don’t want to see someone that asks them, ‘Have you been fishing lately?’ if the fishery is closed. So they’ll totally avoid, say, going to have a beer on Friday because they don’t want to have those interactions.”
And these problems went beyond the individual level. The researchers also asked if fishermen had experienced negative changes at work, in their communities, or in their families as a result of the fishery failing, and if they had changed their plans for the future. In most cases, the answer was yes.
The fishermen’s answers weren’t surprising, Scyphers says, but they provide quantitative data that should be factored into management decisions.
“The policy is that management should be driven by the best scientific information available,” Scyphers says. “And social science is part of the best scientific information available. It’s not just the number of fish.”
The fishermen also reported low levels of trust in the government, fisheries management, and environmental organizations. These results are similar to other man-made disasters, like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which closed down whole fisheries in Cordova, Alaska for years, and was extensively studied by Picou.
“In a scenario where there’s some sort of human-driven cause, whether it be a technological failure, like an oil spill, or in this scenario, where it was more complicated, there’s a lot of finger pointing and blame and lawsuits,” Scyphers says. “They’re often called contested disasters, because you never really know when it ends.”
Communities affected by contested disasters tend to recover more slowly than those hit by natural disasters like a hurricane, Scyphers says. Natural disasters evoke more empathy and immediate relief.
The disaster in the Gulf of Maine is both man-made and natural. While historic overfishing caused cod populations to plummet, the modern fishing industry was generally staying within the limits set by managers. That should have been a sustainable level of harvest, but it wasn’t.
“Climate change is making it much harder for us to predict risk and to buffer for those types of things,” Scyphers says. “I think the fishing industry generally did what they could do to follow the rules and the guidelines that were set out for them.”
Since 2010, 33 U.S. fisheries have officially been declared disasters, and eight more are awaiting decisions. Fishing communities across the country are facing similar hardships. Strategies that worked for the communities affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, like training community health workers and peer listeners, could help fishing communities too, Scyphers says.
“These are things that need prioritization and resources,” Scyphers says. “We need to be as committed to helping fishing communities recover as people, as we are to rebounding the number of fish.”