Can Codfish Make a Comeback?

Are stricter harvest regulations, in effect for years now, working to restore this vital bottom-dwelling species? Here's the latest from captains up and down the coast.

Big cod like this may become more common as closed areas and stricter regulations allow the codfish population to expand. This fine fish was caught during an unusual balmy day offshore.
Photo by Milt Rosko

As a youngster, I vividly recall reading the Encyclopedia Britannica to learn of the exploits of commercial fishermen. These fishermen converged on the Georges Bank off Canada and the northeastern United States to harvest what they thought was an inexhaustible supply of codfish. Fast-forward a half-century. I had enjoyed recreational cod fishing with my dad during my youth some seven decades ago. But already as I reached my 20s, I could see the fishery declining, when suddenly this favorite coldwater bottom-feeder of the Northeast became a rarity on the end of recreational fishermen's lines.

As with many fisheries throughout the world, the "inexhaustible" supply of codfish had been devastated. I'm reminded of the great halibut fishery in these very same waters a century ago, where boatloads of huge halibut each weighing 100 pounds or more were brought in by the commercials, to the point of virtual extinction. It appears that mankind has a lock on making history repeat itself.

Fortunately, some of the actions taken first by the government of Canada in closing the Georges Bank to cod fishing, and then the United States taking a similar stand in 1994, appears to have brought the overharvesting under control. From what I've been able to research, recent estimates had the cod stock assessment down to a dangerous 15 percent of what it once was. On a positive note -- while some may disagree -- it appears the closure and minimal breeding stock was enough to bring about the long, slow process of rebuilding.

In developing this article, I decided to reach out to the many captains with whom I've sailed from ports ranging from Maine's Boothbay Harbor to Delaware's Indian River, where I previously scored with codfish along the entire length of the northeast coast. These old timers reminisced of "the good old days," but qualified their assessment in acknowledging that at times years ago, many anglers fished more for the table than recreation. Further, while today's catch numbers don't necessarily compare with a half-century ago, a reasonably skilled recreational angler can enjoy great codfish action these days.

It's important to note things were different years ago with respect to the boats targeting codfish. There were many small party boats sailing from vintage docks in coastal communities, each capable of carrying 15 to 25 people. Many of their fares were fishing for the table, filling burlap potato sacks with fish while literally using hand lines and multi-hook bottom rigs baited with clam. These boats sailed to grounds just a few miles from shore and regularly posted good catches.

Today, small party boats are a thing of the past for the most part, replaced by big boats in the 70- to 125-foot class, which are equipped for long trips and sailing throughout the winter months. It should also be noted that the codfish fishery today is primarily composed of big party boats and a limited number of charter boats. Many of the smaller charter boats and a majority of private boats don't have much of an impact on the fishery.

While speaking with the sage of the Viking Fleet out of Montauk, Steve Forsberg Sr. recalled a report from his son, Steve Jr., who radioed in on the action of Feb. 25, 2009.

"The fishing is just phenomenal on the Viking Superstar. We're catching the real "Viking" cod of yesteryear, with 20- and 30-pound fish flying over the rails and the only complaint was there is no more room in anyone's cooler."

The pool winner that day was Tom Hyon from New Jersey with a 34-pound beauty. Rather unusual was that two anglers, who both hooked the same cod, shared the second-place pool money on that trip!

Captain Steve Sr. also noted the Viking Starship was pressed into service that day for an overflow crowd with Capt. Dave at the helm; they, too, had an excellent day of fishing. Their top cod weighed 41 pounds, with big fish coming over the rail from the beginning to the end of the trip. When Steve watched the boats unloading at the dock, he said he hadn't seen anything like this since the 1970s.

Here's a selection of basic tackle employed by the author while he's angling for cod. Cod will respond well to clam baits fished on the bottom and to a variety of jigs when they're feeding on herring and other forage species.
Photo by Milt Rosko

"The fishing's been extraordinary all winter, and each of the last four or five seasons has seen an improvement in the size and quantity of this great bottom feeder."

Giving testimony to the great fishing is the fact that New Jersey party boats, which had been enjoying fair to middling success while wreck fishing for cod, began regular daily junkets to the waters off Montauk and Block Island to put their passengers into the hectic action.

"Once the stripers migrated south in December we didn't have much to do locally," averred Capt. Jimmy Elliott of the 120-foot Miss Belmar Princess, "so Alan Shinn and I headed to the codfish grounds out east. The guys and gals we carried all had a blast and caught plenty of codfish, so this year we're starting the trips as soon as the stripers leave."

I've regularly fished from Key West to Gloucester with Capt. Greg Mercurio aboard his Yankee Capts, which also fishes out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. I've always enjoyed excellent fishing aboard a boat with a dedicated crew whose sole purpose is that recreational anglers enjoy their fishing. On my last trip, I enjoyed a mixed bag while fishing out of Gloucester, where the grounds fished were Cashes Ledge, with codfish ranging in size from little more than 1 pound to 40 pounds in the catch.

Out of New Bedford the cod were mostly 5- to 10-pounders. You were assured of taking home a good catch. However, Greg has a concern: "The herring fishery needs to be addressed. By-catch by draggers needs to be addressed also. Dragging for haddock sees a huge by-catch of cod that get tossed overboard with no one really knowing how much damage is being done."

Captain Joe Huckemeyer owns the Helen H out of Hyannis Harbor, Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, Jo

e and his wife, Carol Ann, moved the Helen H from Sheepshead Bay, New York to Cape Cod and started a new fishing operation in Hyannis Harbor. He's been around and remembers the days of feast, and of famine. Importantly, he's pleased to see positive results and is hopeful sound fisheries management, in which he's extensively involved, will prevail in the future with respect to recreational fishermen.

He, as are many of the captains with whom I have fished, is amenable to reasonable regulations with respect to seasons, size and bag limits; he recognizes the importance of not permitting a fishery to become over fished to the point of its being virtually impossible to recover. He's pleased with the fishing off Cape Cod, with cod making a fine comeback in recent years, and haddock, too, both providing action on Stellwagen Bank.

Capt. Joe is also is a member of the Massachusetts Fisheries Commission, Advisor to the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission and Recreational fishing Advisor to the New England Fisheries Council, and always alert to voicing his views to protect our fishery resources and the interests of recreational anglers.

According to Barry Gibson, New England regional director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the race of cod that spawned in the Sheepscot River was completely eliminated by commercial draggers in a span of two years. It happened in the 1970s when the draggers indiscriminately landed hundreds of tons of this cod population, consequently wiping it out.

While Gibson is disappointed about the stock that once spawned in the Sheepscot, he's pleased with the recovery (albeit nominal) that's occurring with the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stocks.

"Make no mistake, Georges Bank has been overfished and continues to be nowhere near a recovery. We have popular aggregation, which really is not an indicator of the state of the stock. We need to limit catches, giving populations a chance to multiply.

"Keep in mind, the 1979 codfish biomass was 135,000 metric tons. Today, it's but one-fifth of that! As a result, fishing mortality on Georges Bank in particular needs to be reduced. The Gulf of Maine stock is in better condition, primarily because of controls put in place 25 years ago, where regulators have been attempting to reduce fishing effort on that stock, resulting in some improvement."

Worth noting is that several areas in the Gulf of Maine like Jeffreys Ledge, with 600 miles of area off New Hampshire and Maine, is closed to commercial fishing, yet still provides good recreational fishing. Stellwagen Bank off Gloucester to Cape Cod has provided excellent fishing for recreational anglers the past several years, thanks to the restrictions on commercial fishing.

With respect to codfish moving close to shore, and also to the southern waters off New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, a theory offered by Capt. Howard Bogan Sr. of the Jamaica out of Brielle is that as the population on Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine grows, the codfish expand their range to seek forage, moving both inshore and south. That hasn't happened to the level of a half-century ago as yet, but already his son, Capt. Howard Jr., has noted increasing numbers of cod on offshore wrecks, and especially those in the Mud Hole. He looks forward to the day when close-to-shore spots, such as The Farms and 17 Fathoms Bank, will see a resurgence of cod.

One thing that scientists, government agencies, the public, along with commercial and recreational interests agree upon is it was commercial fishermen who decimated the cod population because controls were lacking. At its height, the recreational sector only accounted for between 2 and 5 percent of the catch.

If you're a recreational angler who may never have been fortunate to enjoy the cod fishing of yesteryear, might I suggest you give this delightful pastime a try. It's available aboard party boats throughout the Northeast. The codfish is a bottom feeder, and will eat most any food it happens upon. Just recently, I heard of a party boat mate who was cleaning codfish and found a cell phone in its stomach, which he was able to trace back to its owner!

I wouldn't mislead you to thinking the codfish is a game fish in the class of the striped bass or bluefish. But rest assured that on moderate tackle you'll enjoy tussling with a steaker cod, those beauties that weigh in at 15 pounds or more. You'll find all the tackle and terminal rigging you'll need available on the party boat fleets that target these husky bottom feeders.

Importantly, you'll be catching the codfish in its home waters of the northeast Atlantic, from which boats that sailed halfway across the globe to do so have harvested them for more than a century. The final treat is to arrive home and decide to have codfish for dinner, with your favorite recipe, be it sautéed, fried, baked or broiled. Or, for a delicious treat, try streamed codfish, then flaked and mixed with sautéed onions, beaten egg and mashed potatoes, dusted in breadcrumbs and fried, for the traditional codfish cake, a delight my wife June makes like no other! Hope to see you out over the cod grounds this winter season!

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