Sunday January 27, 2013 | 08:44 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

In 1527, English captain John Rut steered his ship into St. John’s harbor in Newfoundland. There he found “eleven saile of Normans, and one Brittaine [Breton], and two Portugall Barkes, and all a-fishing.” A century before New England was settled by actual colonists, the northwest Atlantic was already a hive of activity, fished by intrepid Europeans shocked and amazed by its bounty.

By 1616 the famous Captain John Smith could say of the Gulf of Maine, “He is a very bad fisher, [who] cannot kill in one day with his hook and line, one, two, three hundred Cods.”

Those days are gone.

A wooden replica of a cod hangs in the Massachusetts Statehouse. Cape Cod itself got its name as early as 1602. Yet soon, possibly within the next week, an already-strangled industry may face an 81% cut in catch allowance for the next year. That would mean fishermen could legally pull a maximum of 1,249 metric tons of cod from the Gulf of Maine. If they can find even that amount. Compare that to years past:

It’s not just cod. And not just the Gulf of Maine. With the fishing season 2/3 of the way done, fishermen throughout New England had caught less than half their 2012 quota of 14 out of 16 groundfish species. On George’s Bank, that hallowed fishing ground that separates the Gulf of Maine from the open Atlantic, fishermen had only been able to find & catch 3% of their haddock quota.

Sadly, this isn’t a new story. One by one over the centuries, the great fish of the Gulf of Maine have been driven to near-extinction.

Overfishing, habitat destruction, warming oceans, pollution, even perhaps introduction of invasive species -- all of these have played a role in the decimation of the Gulf of Maine’s bounty.

It’s a 250-year-old story. This is its latest chapter.

When the new cuts take place, it is possible that the only large-scale commercial fishery to be left in the Gulf of Maine will be lobster. As other species struggle, our lobster hauls are hitting yearly records.

Lobster hauls were at huge levels in New York and southern New England waters too in the 1990s. In 1999, they imploded, decimated by a strange new shell disease. They haven’t recovered. No one still knows why, though two major thoughts are pesticide runoff and climate change/warming oceans.

Could that happen to lobster here too? A better question is, can we be sure it won’t?

When first discovered by European explorers, the NW Atlantic ecosystem was impossibly fruitful, interconnected, diverse, and bounteous. In 2013, we may now be one last disease or disruption away from a commercially dead Gulf.

Quite a legacy.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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