Net loss

John Bullard, the Northeast administrator for NOAA Fisheries, shut down cod fishing in the region for at least six months. It’s not making him any friends.

You served three terms as mayor of New Bedford, which made you one of the chief advocates for one of the biggest fishing ports in the country. Now, with the cod fishing ban that you ordered, you’re being called the guy who’s killing the fishing industry. When I left City Hall, I was actually hired by the fishing industry. I worked for New Bedford Seafood Co-op for six months, and my job was to organize fishermen to lobby the federal government. When I took my current job, I saw the mission as doing what we can to preserve working waterfronts. If you look at groundfish, we have, over many decades, gotten ourselves in a position where there’s very few fish and very few fishermen, so there’s very little margin for error. One way to look at it is as a balancing act between fish and fishermen. Another way to look at it is as a balancing act between today and tomorrow. Can people think about tomorrow when they have needs today?WhiteBullBack2

Some criticism has come in the form of claims that boats are landing huge amounts of cod. Is there a parallel to climate change debates where people talk about cold spells as proof that global warming is nonsense? Scientists say there aren’t any cod. Fishermen say there are a lot. How can they both be right? The reason is when cod stocks plummet, cod congregate. And fishermen are smart. They know where the cod are concentrating, and that’s where they go to fish.

Charlie Baker, whose empathy for fishermen gained some notoriety in the recent campaign, is among those who have questioned your ruling and pointed to the large cod hauls. Have you talked to him? No. He hasn’t called.

Do you have any doubt that these drastic steps were necessary if there’s any chance of saving cod? There’s always doubt in science. The Magnuson Act [passed by Congress in 1976], which is the law we work under, says you must use the best available science. It doesn’t say use perfect science — there is no such thing. Nothing is easy in fishing. Fishery management is like Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy: It’s the worst form of government there is except for everything else.

But you’re convinced that to do nothing would lead to a pretty certain outcome that nobody wants? Absolutely. Extinction. The trajectory that cod is on right now, where we’re at 3 to 4 percent of what’s needed for a healthy stock, is heading to zero. And we’re not the only ones fishing for cod. Dogfish are fishing for cod. Seals are fishing for cod. Lobsters are fishing for cod. There’s all sorts of folks fishing for cod, and we don’t manage them.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Does this draw so much attention because we have an iconic association with cod? There’s the wood carving of the Sacred Cod hanging in the State House, and of course the name of our most famous shoreline. That is surely part of it. Fishing here is dominated economically by scallops and lobster, each of them this past year in the neighborhood of $400 to $500 million. Groundfish [which includes cod] is $60 million or so. It’s not in the same ballpark as either lobster or scallops. But cod defines us. And if we lose cod on our watch, it’s an indictment against all of us. We’re assuming that there aren’t changes going on — changing water temperatures, changing chemistry with an acidifying ocean — that will defeat us no matter what sacrifices fishermen make. We are being optimistic here that we can rebuild cod, but I don’t think there’s anyone who absolutely knows the answer to this.

Photograph by Frank Curran