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New England's Cod in Crisis

The already bad news about Atlantic cod in New England just got worse. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service have found that the cod population in the Gulf of Maine is at an all-time low. Virtually every indicator of the stock condition declined in the past year, to the point that the total of adult fish, known as spawning biomass, is estimated to be just 3 or 4 percent of a healthy, sustainable population. Researchers also found very few young fish, another bad sign. In a notice issued Aug. 1, scientists warned fishery managers in the region that the new analysis presented “a grim picture for the recovery of this iconic fish."

A solid body of science shows that protecting habitat areas in New England waters has resulted in more large female cod. Credit: Joachim Muller / talkingfish.org

This is a serious blow to fishermen and fishing communities that depend on cod. Previous estimates showing this cod population at about 20 percent of target numbers had already made it necessary to sharply reduce the allowable catch. The Commerce Department declared the fishery a disaster in 2012, and some $33 million in federal aid is being distributed to New England fishermen.

Fishermen and fishery managers begrudgingly reduced fishing pressure, hoping it would bring a recovery. But it is now clear that the damage inflicted through decades of chronic overfishing and harm to ocean habitats is so great that more is needed.

First, we must stop degrading sensitive fish habitat with bottom-trawl fishing, scallop dredges and other high-impact gear. Fish need places where they can safely find food and shelter, grow and reproduce. A solid body of science shows that protecting habitat areas in New England waters has resulted in more large female cod, which are crucial to the reproductive success of the population.

Second, officials should implement the method of fishing regulation that scientists have long been calling for—ecosystem-based fisheries management. This approach keeps track not just of one species at a time, but also allows managers to account for how fish interact as part of an intricate food web. Science shows it is crucial, for instance, to incorporate the important relationships between predators and prey, and how changes in the ocean environment affect fish. New England’s fishery management council has taken the first tentative steps toward putting this big picture approach to work. The crisis with cod provides strong impetus to speed that process.

Yet, some in the fishing industry persist in questioning the science, saying what they see on the water tells a different story. Scientists have carefully explained in a recent study why some fishermen may enjoy a temporary abundance of fish even while the larger population is in sharp decline. In short, those fishermen are catching the last remaining pockets of cod as the fish gather densely within small areas of prime feeding habitat. Overall, however, fishermen have not been able to find enough cod in recent years to even fill their quota.

And, unfortunately, this council is also preparing to gut protections for ocean habitat before they have had a chance to take effect. An industry-supported proposal currently under consideration would slash habitat protection by some 70 percent, allowing damaging forms of fishing in a combined area the size of Connecticut. Cutting habitat protections now defies logic and almost certainly sets us on a path to eliminating these fish from New England’s waters.

What we do now will resonate for generations. The fishery managers for New England must pivot to ecosystem-based fisheries management and commit to leaving habitat protections in place to ensure fish for future generations.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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