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The Atlantic cod is coming back after strict catch limits greatly decreased numbers


Call it a potential comeback. After years of limits on how much Atlantic cod fishers can catch in New England, there's some promising new data on the fish that was central to building the region's economy. From The Public's Radio in Rhode Island, Ben Berke reports.

BEN BERKE, BYLINE: Before Raymond Lees goes fishing, he stops by Reidar’s Trawl Gear in New Bedford, Mass., where he buys custom nets that help him avoid certain types of fish. For commercial fishermen like Lees, cod is known as a choke species, meaning fishermen catch so much of it by accident, they sometimes hit their quota and have to stop fishing for what they really want.

RAYMOND LEES: I've been scalloping close to five years because I haven't been able to fish what I was traditionally trained to do, and that's chase codfish and flounders.

BERKE: Shop owner Tor Bendiksen is a former fisherman himself.


BERKE: As he trims a net design his family has been refining for generations, Bendiksen says he's watched the number of boats fishing for cod out of New Bedford shrink by 90%.

TOR BENDIKSEN: Well, we went from, you know, a huge fishing business, as far as the groundfishing fleet's concerned, of, you know, 300 boats down to, you know, 20 boats, which is - what? - two dozen boats.

BERKE: Fishing ports up and down the East Coast suffered similar fates. It's been a long decline for a fishery that built New England. Back in the 1600s, tales of an ocean full of cod lured the pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. But after centuries of good catches, nets started to come up light in the 1980s. The federal government kicked foreign fleets out of American fishing grounds. And by the mid-'90s, regulators closed areas of the ocean to American fishermen, too. Some areas are still closed because regulators believe cod never rebounded from overfishing. But new research from Kevin Stokesbury, a professor of fishery science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is challenging that claim.

KEVIN STOKESBURY: For the first time in about 20 years, we have seen and are tracking a successful year class of cod. And they seem to be growing at a very good rate.

BERKE: This healthy population of young cod hatched off the coast of New England three years ago. Stokesbury calls it the class of '19. And he says the group is already spawning. With three or four more classes like it, Stokesbury says the cod fishery could be back in business. If that happens, it wouldn't be the first time Stokesbury's findings shifted fishing regulations. In the 1990s, he devised a new way of counting scallops that opened up a tightly regulated fishery. The government already suspected scallops were rebounding to some extent. But Stokesbury's research upended what regulators had been saying for years.

STOKESBURY: They thought there were two to three times as many scallops in there. And there were actually about 14 times as many.

BERKE: Restrictions loosened. And the growing scallop industry turned New Bedford into the highest grossing fishing port in America. Local fishermen, in turn, have paid it forward. They donate boats, captains and fuel to Stokesbury's research expeditions. His latest research on cod is under review this summer by scientists who will determine whether it should impact fishing regulations. Russ Brown, a scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, says current models still estimate Atlantic cod stocks are about one-tenth the size they used to be. Brown says Stokesbury's data is exciting. But he and other scientists remember a promising class of young cod that hatched around 2006 and failed to rebuild the species.

RUSS BROWN: They were fished and they were harvested. In order to rebuild a stock, you have to sort of preserve those spawners so that they're able to reproduce.

BERKE: Brown says scientists will have to wait and see if the class of 2019 matures enough to spawn the comeback everyone is hoping for. For NPR News, I'm Ben Berke in New Bedford, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Berke