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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Not Enough (Cod)Fish In The Sea?

Rowan Jacobsen with a codfish (Rowan Jacobsen)

Rowan Jacobsen holds up a cod fish. Pictured above is a monkfish, one of the “trash fish” species that sustainable fisheries advocates say consumers should be eating more of now that cod is depleted. (Rowan Jacobsen)

There’s long been a debate over exactly how many fish there are in the sea — especially cod. Cod has been overfished for decades and because of that, strict catch limits were put in place, particularly in the Gulf of Maine where cod were once plentiful.

Author Rowan Jacobsen recently volunteered on one of the research expeditions that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs to count cod and other fish off the Northeast coast, to determine if fishing cod is as sustainable as fishermen say it is.

They didn’t find much cod, but they did find several other types of fish, including the intimidating monkfish, one of the “trash fish” species that sustainable fisheries advocates say consumers should be eating more of now that cod is depleted.

Rowan Jacobsen speaks with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about his expedition out to sea.

“The real story from, what I’ve seen, is cod are pretty much done — you can just cross them off the list for the foreseeable future,” Jacobsen says. “But there’s a lot of other fish out there — and that’s actually one of the big things we need to do and kind of wrap our heads around, is switching the fish that we look for in a store or in a restaurant from the few that we are familiar with, like cod, to ones that we might not be familiar with, but are abundant and delicious.”





There has long been a debate about how many fish there are in the sea, especially cod, which scientists say is overfished but fishermen say is plentiful. The government has put strict catch limits in place for cod, but the law that sets those catch limits is up for re-authorization. And there is talk in Congress of reforming it. So scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as busily counting fish on research expeditions in the Gulf of Maine to help set catch limits.

Author Rowan Jacobsen volunteered on one of the recent expeditions. He wrote the article "Counting Fish" for the current edition of Yankee magazine, and he joins us now from the studios of Vermont Public Radio in Burlington. Rowan, welcome.

ROWAN JACOBSEN: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So are there enough cod or is there a shortage? What's the real story?

JACOBSEN: The real story from what I've seen is that cod are pretty much done. You can just cross them off the list for the foreseeable future.

HOBSON: Really? Done?

JACOBSEN: Done. We're at historical lows in the populations that we're seeing. We seem to be at a similar place to where the Canadian fishery was in '92 when they had a moratorium on their cod fishery. And despite that, their cod numbers have not come back up in, you know, 20, 20 plus years of no fishing.

HOBSON: But the fishermen would say - and they do say - they're catching hundreds of them at a time. So why the discrepancy there?

JACOBSEN: Yeah. You know, that was one thing that I really hadn't understood before I went out on this NOAA boat. There are certain spots in the gulf, kind of like hotspots, where cod will concentrate. And if you're fishing in that spot, you know, your nets are coming up with hundreds of cod in them. You think things are great. But it turns out that a significant amount of the cod in the Western Atlantic will concentrate at these spots. And once you catch them, not only do you get a false sense of what's out there, but you've also just scooped out quite a few of the remaining ones.

Based on the quotas that were set, NOAA expected cod to rebound, and it really hasn't rebounded nearly as quickly as they thought it had. So that's one of the big questions is why isn't cod coming back?

HOBSON: Well - and you've been looking into this. I wanted you to tell us about your expedition. You went out onto the Bigelow - a ship called the Bigelow. Tell us about what you did and what you found.

JACOBSEN: Since the '60s, NOAA has been doing these surveys in U.S. fishing waters where they very scientifically fish and count every single fish that they catch. And based on what they see in those numbers, they set the quotas for what fishermen are allowed to catch. And I found out that they actually take volunteers on these boats. There are certain things we can do and certain things we can't do. Like I was, you know, online 12 hours a day with this conveyor belt of fish coming at us. And we would be cutting open every fish, weighing every fish, measuring it, cutting open its stomach and documenting the prey species inside.

HOBSON: So what did you find? What kind of fish did you catch and count and what about the cod?

JACOBSEN: We found an amazing abundance of fish. It was actually, I guess kind of heart-warming in a way to be out there and see all this fish load after load day after day, although that was also a lot of work. But I guess that's the good news, is that even though cod - the quotas on cod are incredibly low and are going to be incredibly low for years to come, but there's a lot of other fish out there. And that's actually one of the big things we need to do and kind of wrap our heads around is switching the fish that we look for in a store or in a restaurant from the view that we are familiar with, like cod, to ones that we might not be familiar with but are abundant and delicious.

HOBSON: Well, how difficult will it be to do that? Because people do have a hard time going with things that they don't know, especially fish, which many people don't even like to eat at all. What should we be looking for in the supermarket or at a restaurant when we decide we want to have some fish?

JACOBSEN: You know, the big one that could actually make a real difference - and there's groups of chefs pushing this fish right now and hoping that they can make it into a market - is dogfish. When all the cod disappeared, dogfish, which are basically these two- to three-foot sharks, kind of rushed in to fill that niche in the ecosystem. So there are an unbelievable number of dogfish out there.

When I was out on the Bigelow, you know, our nets would just come in almost bursting with dogfish. And there's no market for this fish, because people just aren't used to eating it and they think it tastes bad. But now, it all gets shipped to England for fish and chips at a very, very cheap price.


JACOBSEN: Hence the vinegar on the fish and chips.

HOBSON: Ah, I see. So you're saying it wouldn't be tasty if you just filleted it with some olive oil.

JACOBSEN: If it is actually delicious. I've had it a few different ways from various chefs, and it's been fantastic. But what - if you don't get to it right away, it can get rancid pretty quickly.

HOBSON: What about a monk fish? You encountered a monk fish. Tell us what that looks like and what happened.

JACOBSEN: Monk fish are definitely the tastiest fish in the North Atlantic, I think. It sometimes gets called poor man's lobster, which now doesn't make sense because it's actually pricier than lobster at the moment, but - delicious fish, but also just a completely freaky fish. We cut a lot of monk fish. It's like a bear trap with a tail attached. It's just this huge jaw full of incredibly sharp teeth stretched wide open, and it just waits there for other fish to come along, and then it snaps down on them.

And one actually snapped down on the finger of my partner I was working with in the Bigelow because we thought it was dead. It was just playing possum on us, and it actually got his finger in its mouth and wouldn't let it go.

HOBSON: Yikes.

JACOBSEN: I took a knife, a fillet knife, and jammed, like, the handle into its mouth to try to pry the mouth open, and it actually ripped the knife away from me.


JACOBSEN: And then it was, like, slashing around the table with the knife blade poking out of its mouth.

HOBSON: Maybe that's why we haven't caught very many of those and eaten them over the years.


JACOBSEN: They're a little scary to work with.

HOBSON: At the end of all of this and your expedition and talking to researchers, are you optimistic that we will be able to reverse the trend here of over-fishing and destroying the populations of fish-like cod, or do you think that we'll be able to turn some kind of a corner?

JACOBSEN: I actually wound up being quite optimistic, partly it was because I got to see NOAA in action, you know, really up close, where they couldn't hide anything for many days. And it's worked - the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which basically tasked NOAA with taking every fish stock that was overfished and bringing it back up to sustainable levels, it's worked for about two-thirds of the species that we fish for with a few exceptions like cod. So the thing that's going to make it work is not pressuring the scientists to try to raise those quotas higher than they know they need to be.

HOBSON: And to eat more dog fish, I guess.


JACOBSEN: More dog fish, lots of lobster.

HOBSON: Rowan Jacobsen is the author of the book "A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America." His article "Counting Fish" is in the current edition of Yankee magazine. We've got a link at hereandnow.org. Rowan, thanks so much.

JACOBSEN: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • Mark Roberts

    On the “preview” for this piece, I heard the interviewer and guest laughing about a animal convulsing in pain with a knife sticking through its mouth. Just curious – do you personally have a companion animal (i.e. sentient being belonging to another speices)? Am I missing something?

    • fun bobby

      are fish sentient?

      • Wilyum

        See, for example, Applied Animal Behavior Science 200, no. 104. (2007). To quote J.S. Foer, who has done extensive research on this topic: “Comparative anatomy tells us that fish have plenty of the anatomical and neurological gear that seems to play an important role in conscious perception. Most relevantly, fish have abundant nociceptors, the sensory receptors that appear to transmit pain signals to the brain. Fish produce natural opioids, like enkephalins and endorphins, which the human nervous system uses to control pain.”

        • fun bobby

          ok, they process a sensation that we perceive as pain, but can they feel angst?

  • Jennifer Greene

    I, too, was disappointed by the overt carnist bias in this piece. I hope your future stories about fish will acknowledge that eating them is a choice, not a given? (For those who aren’t familiar with how carnism works to shape our attitudes and perceptions when it comes to eating animals, see this site: http://www.carnism.org/)

    • fun bobby

      yet I bet you feel nothing when you murder a plant

      • Jennifer Greene

        A few months ago, a similar comment was made to me by a kindly gentleman whose grown daughter has come to reject carnism. I smiled and asked if he really believes that plants experience pain like animals do. He chuckled and said, “No, no, I’m just teasing you.”

        I have yet to meet someone who honestly believes that it’s no worse to hack off the legs of a conscious dog than it is to trim the blades of grass in their lawn. If you are such a person, fun bobby, then I would be seriously concerned for your grip on reality (and for the dogs in your neighborhood).

        But just for fun, let’s say that plants *do* feel pain. If this is the case, it actually strengthens the argument for switching from eating animals to eating plants. Why? Because of the inefficiency inherent in eating animal-based food. Simply put, it takes more plants to grow the animal you will eat, than the plants it would take to feed you directly (because animals use up a lot of that food energy just breathing and living).

        • fun bobby

          plants in fact feel pain and even fear. they communicate with other plants and animals. if you cut them they bleed. Most people don’t know very much about botany. As an organism that can neither photosynthesize or consume detritus I must consume other organisms to live. It is obvious from our physical structure what our role in the ecosystem is. Why do you think you have incisors?

          • N_Jessen

            I guess it depends whether one defines pain or suffering as a relatively basic chemical response to a stimulus. Since plants have no central nervous system, it’s unlikely that they’re self-aware, or even sentient, and that seems important to the perception of pain at least in humans. That said, I’m ‘mostly’ vegetarian, but largely for health and ecological reasons. I still eat sustainably harvested fish etc.

          • fun bobby

            here is one example of what plants can do. In an experimental setting a greenhouse full of plants was set up so they could measure the stress hormones produced by the plants ( the existence of stress hormones in plants tends to disprove your hypotheses) an individual burned one of the plants with a cigarette and the plant had a stress hormone response. That’s interesting but the interesting part is that the next time that individual, and not other individuals, entered the garden all the plants released the stress hormone. there is a really interesting case of some acacia trees conspiring to kill of a population of deer in Africa. science is just learning about some of the higher order functions of plants. Almost no mammals are completely vegetarian. Pandas, deer and other grazing animals do not take the bugs off of what they eat so they get a lot of their nutrition and protein from insects. Thinking about what one eats and how its produced is a good thing. I think I just revere plants as much as animals because I know a lot about them and know they have a spirit just as much as any animal or other living thing does.

  • Rebecca A

    Our oceans are being decimated according to Bruce Monger, oceanographer of Cornell University. He recommends eating no fish at all. There is no human need for fish in our diet and if you do eat fish you are eating one of the most contaminated animals on earth, including mercury and PCBs . The “sustainable farms” are really

    toxic soups. We did not need fish for food, so why contribute to the ocean’s failing ecology.

  • fun bobby

    cod have actually been overfished for centuries. The depletion of the European cod stocks was a driving economic force that built early America. incredibly abundant giant cod were an important part of triangular trade. MA owes a debt to the cod that is only hinted at by the sacred cod hanging in the statehouse

  • Mark Roberts

    It’s one thing to have two people laughing about an animal writhing in pain, and another to use that excerpt to advertise the piece. Look, I realize the fish had a firm grip on someone’s finger. And at that point you have to do what you have to do. But it certainly wasn’t the fish’s fault for ending up there, and can you blame it for defending itself? We basically think of it as an unfeeling object that flops around (woh! hahah!). But this is Robin Young’s show, correct? She sounds so intelligent, and at the same time caring and considerate…and compassionate. Honestly, that’s why I listen to Here and Now, because of Robin. There is no voice I like to hear more on the radio. How we treat animals is bad enough, do we have to perpetuate this attitude towards them? What would it cost Here & Now to adopt a policy that we don’t joke about animal suffering, we take it seriously?

    • fun bobby

      fish are pretty stupid

  • Nils S

    Referring to monkfish as “trash” – and I don’t know whether that was the doing of Mr. Jacobson or Hobson or someone else at Here and now/NPR – indicates a level of grossly inadequate research/fact checking that has come to typify “reporting” on fish, fishing and fisheries. All it would have taken was a two minute conversation with a fishmonger, a commercial fisherman or a chef with a familiarity with northeast fisheries to determine that monkfish is and has been one of the most valuable finfish fisheries from Cape Hatteras to Maine for at least the last two decades with a demand that exceeds supply and a retail value on a par with other high demand fish. Accurate reporting isn’t difficult. All it requires is a bit more time, a bit more effort and a commitment to getting it right.

    • John

      I completely agree with Nils. Maybe monkfish as “trash fish” in the 1970s. But ever since the 1990s this fish has been a standard moneymaker for both inshore and offshore fishing vessels. The fish lately has been shipped overseas to France and Korea. The Korean market is a premium high-end market. The Koreans expect proper handling at sea by U.S. fisherman if the fisherman are going to get the high prices. These fish have made many a fisherman good money through the years. Calling them “trash fish” hurts my head.

  • Eat_More_Fish!

    Really? your gonna debate whether fish have pain? Go away… please. FOCUS! Stick with the issue/report content will ya!!!??? Jeremy, great job here and with the Yankee Mag write up. Thanks for that. As a fisherman, I am acutely aware and tuned to the management of our fishery not only on the eastern seaboard but throughout the world. [We] have done wonders in many respects, and have suffered much pain in our industry to accommodate and drive these successes. [We] also have a lot more work to do (ie: the cod recruits being seen today) and more industry pain to endure; to keep a good balance. NOAA does a reasonable job managing as can be deduced from this article. The real issue with the fisheries is the abuse and uncontrolled catches from a global perspective. (Blue Fin Tuna is one). I eat fish on average 3 times a week and will continue to do so. It’s healthy, its good, and total fun to catch!

    • Jennifer Greene

      I used to think the same way, about fish. And I can certainly understand why you, as someone who identifies as a fisherman, would be more comfortable not thinking about fish sentience.

      But it looks like that view of fish is out of date. Here’s one summary (references available at http://www.farmsanctuary.org/learn/someone-not-something/fish/):

      The science on fish sentience is extensive, and it all points in one direction: Fish are individuals who are similar — emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally — to land animals. While they don’t scream out in pain, they do feel pain. And, while most of us don’t get to know them because they spend all their time in the water, those who do know them respect them as individuals. Writing in New Scientist, Professor Culum Brown explains: “In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates, including non-human primates. Best of all, given the central place memory plays in intelligence and social structures, fish not only recognize individuals but can also keep track of complex social relationships.”

      Marine biologist Sylvia Earle sums up her thoughts on fish this way: “I never eat anyone I know personally. I wouldn’t deliberately eat a grouper any more than I’d eat a cocker spaniel. They’re so good-natured, so curious. You know, fish are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they’re wounded.”

      The BBC, in describing an article in the scientific journal Fish and Fisheries that discusses the knowledge gained based on more than 500 studies, explains that fish are “now seen as highly intelligent creatures…steeped in social intelligence…exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food. Recent research had shown that fish recognised individual ‘shoal mates,’ social prestige, and even tracked relationships. Scientists had also observed them using tools, building complex nests, and exhibiting long-term memories.” Fish, say the scientists, “can even be favourably compared to non-human primates.”

      The journal article has been turned into a book, Fish Cognition and Behavior, which sums up the science: “Fishes exhibit a rich array of sophisticated behavior with impressive learning capabilities entirely comparable with those of mammals and other terrestrial animals.”

      In an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Counterpoint” program, Professor Brown explains one observational experiment in which fish learned how to escape a trawl net after just five exposures (15 minutes) and retained the knowledge for their entire lives. They also learn to avoid fishing vessels and hooked lines — though, as he points out, “we now use satellite technology and goodness knows what else to pinpoint them, so I think we still have the upper hand.”

      He also discussed how fish “learn by observing or interacting with other fish,” which shows that fish have culture. And, on the issue of fish feeling pain, Brown explains that fish “feel pain in ‘exactly the same way we do.’” When they’re pulled out of the water, they experience stress such that their stress hormones are “exactly the same as a person drowning,” except that the fish experience this agony for 20 to 30 minutes.

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