Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink : The Salt A decade ago, fishermen trying to catch North Sea cod were coming up empty. Now, thanks to strict fishing rules put in place to halt the decline, this fish tale looks headed for a happy ending.
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Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink

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Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink

Cod Comeback: How The North Sea Fishery Bounced Back From The Brink

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's a fish tale that seems to be on its way to a happy ending. It comes to us from Scotland. Cod love the icy, cold waters of the North Sea, and people in Britain love eating cod. A decade ago, it looked like people were eating the fish to the brink of collapse. Now the trend has turned around, and the cod are coming back. NPR's Ari Shapiro sent this report from a small fishing town.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's early morning at the Fraserburgh fish market, and there are buyers and sellers lined up along hundreds of boxes containing cod, hake, monkfish, sole and every other kind of fish you can imagine from the North Sea. And the auction is about to begin.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: This auction is not a place for fancy chefs and home cooks. The sales are in bulk, and most of the buyers and sellers here come from generations of fishermen, like market superintendent Ian Buchan. He spent most of his life at sea until it became just too hard to catch fish.

IAN BUCHAN: People were saying there was no cod. Ten years before I stopped at least 150 mile to get fish - now, 20 mile. Fish is everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Fish is everywhere.

ALAN MUTCH: We see a big explosion in the cod and hake.

SHAPIRO: Alan Mutch runs the fish salesman's association here.

MUTCH: We are definitely seeing an upsurge in that. And, in fact, now vessels, because of the restrictions on the amount they're allowed to land, vessels now have to steam to other areas to get away from cod.

SHAPIRO: This is a huge turnaround from just a decade ago.

ROBIN COOK: Through much of my career, many of the stocks in European waters were in decline, and things were getting worse and worse and worse.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Robin Cook used to run the region's fisheries research center. He's now with Strathclyde University in Glasgow. A decade ago, Cook was the go-to expert for stories on fishery collapse. He was quoted in programs with titles like "Goodbye Fish and Chips" and "Costing the Earth - In Cod We Trust." Whereas today...

COOK: It's interesting. You get far more interviews when things are bad than when they're getting better (laughter). So this is certainly quite a change.

SHAPIRO: In the late 1990s, scientists say fishermen were pulling about 60 percent of the cod in the North Sea out of the water each year. It doesn't take an advanced math degree to calculate that that is unsustainable. So about 10 years ago, the government bought around half the fishing boats in Scotland and destroyed them. The ones who kept working were put under strict regulations - the number of days they could spend at sea, the number of cod they could catch. And to Cook, it seems like the program is working.

COOK: I, certainly in the past, would've avoided buying cod, where as I wouldn't now.

SHAPIRO: It's not a perfect system. Fishermen tell me they sometimes throw dead cod back in the water when they scoop them up with other fish. Otherwise, they'll be penalized for violating quotas. In Fraserburgh, Alan Mutch tells me he thinks this community can regulate itself. So I ask...

There are people who will say if the industry is allowed to self-regulate, then every ship will be in a race to empty out the oceans.

MUTCH: I would've said 20 years ago, 15 years ago, possibly. But you've got now a breed of young fishermen.

SHAPIRO: He says the new crop of fishermen has seen what their parents went through and realized they can't return to the old ways. And there is a new generation coming on board. Xander West gave up fishing almost 20 years ago when the fishery started collapsing and now...

XANDER WEST: My son, he's trawling. So he'll go on and hit the lotto.

SHAPIRO: He says his son doesn't make a great living, but it's good enough, and he's just glad that his son can continue in the family business. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Fraserburgh, Scotland.

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