(credit: Gulf of Maine Research Institute)

“I’m leaving here in a coffin.” That’s what The New York Times quoted the owner of a Massachusetts fishing business as saying at a 2013 meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council. Cod numbers in the Gulf of Maine, once an incredible bounty, had crashed so hard over the decades that a strict quota system for fishing was set up in 2010. With the population continuing to fall, those quotas were slashed by around 75 percent in 2013. It’s not hard to imagine the hardship for those whose livelihoods are hauled in with nets.

The promised trade off was that steep cuts in the short-term catch could ensure the return of larger (and sustainable) catches for the longterm. But even with the sacrifice, the problem is still getting worse. The latest numbers put the fish population at about 4 percent of what it needs to be to produce the largest sustainable catch—the money in the bank that generates the most interest without crushing the bank under its weight. It’s a small fraction of what the population was even 30 years ago.

If overfishing is the problem and you limit the catch accordingly, why wouldn’t the population rebound? In a new study published in Science, a team led by Andrew Pershing of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute provides an answer. Overfishing isn’t the only problem.

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