PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's cod fishery, once one of the most lucrative in the Northeast, has declined to the point that it had its least valuable year in more than a half-century in 2018.
The state's industry harvesting the fish-and-chips staple goes back centuries, and it once brought millions of pounds of the fish to land year after year. But data from the state Department of Marine Resources indicate the state's cod were worth just over $200,000 at the docks last year — less than the median price of a single-family home in Maine.
That's the lowest number since 1967, and a fraction of the $2 million to $16 million worth of cod fishermen routinely brought to land in Maine in the 1980s and '90s. The volume of last year's catch was also the second-lowest in recorded history, barely edging out last year at about 89,000 pounds.
The numbers reflect a broader trend in U.S. cod fishing. Tight quotas and population loss have pushed the New England-based fishery to the point of irrelevance, and fishermen tend to avoid the fish altogether.
"We've got a long way to go, to tell you the truth," said Terry Alexander, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council and a veteran commercial fisherman. "Nobody's going to be able to bag a cod. No way."
Federal regulators are considering a slight bump in the nationwide Atlantic cod quota for the fishing year that begins May 1, but it won't make much of a difference. The nationwide fishery hit an all-time low in 2017, and the proposed increase would still leave the quota at less than 5 million pounds — less than 5 percent of the 1982 U.S. cod catch.
Commercial fishermen typically seek multiple species and often avoid fish with low quotas because of laws that require them to stop fishing altogether if they exhaust the quota for one species. Last year's nationwide cod catch was less than 2.2 million pounds, the second-lowest according to federal data that go back to 1950, in part because of those rules.
Scientists have attributed the decline of the cod catch in Maine, Massachusetts and other states to years of overfishing, as well as possible environmental factors. The U.S. imports most of its cod from countries such as Norway and Iceland, which still have active fisheries.
The few remaining U.S. cod fishermen harvest the fish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank off of New England. Massachusetts has long been the biggest cod producing state in the country, and its fishery has suffered the most.