AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to the ocean off of Massachusetts and an unlikely alliance of scientists and fishermen on a quest. They're looking for mating codfish. The goal is not only to revive a depleted fish population but to save an endangered fishing community as well. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: People used to say you could almost walk across the backs of codfish along the New England coast. Cod fueled a huge fishing industry, but now they're scarce. They've mostly been fished out.
SOFIE VAN PARIJS: This is the back door to the aquarium.
JOYCE: If you want to be sure to find one, you can do what I did, go to the aquarium at Woods Hole, Mass., with biologist Sofie Van Parijs.
PARIJS: Here they are - these guys.
JOYCE: A pair of pale-brown, two-foot-long fish swim in a tank. They've got spots and a kind of racing stripe down the side and a little whisker on the lower lip. Van Parijs is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and part of a team of scientists trying to bring the cod back from the brink. The government has tried. They lowered fishing limits drastically, but the cod have not bounced back. Then, a few years ago, biologists discovered something about cod they thought might help. It was a sound in the ocean.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUMPING)
JOYCE: Nothing spectacular, just a kind of faint thumping against the background gurgle of the ocean.
PARIJS: We kept seeing these repetitive calls and realized that they were some kind of fish. And, eventually, we went to look and found out that these were cod.
JOYCE: Biologists call it cod grunting, and they figured maybe they could track the fish by listening for their grunts and then protect them, especially areas where they spawn. They figured there'd be a lot of grunting when they spawn. A cod spawn is pretty spectacular. The fish gather by the thousands in a column that extends up from the sea bottom. Biologists called these spawning haystacks.
PARIJS: These cod come back to the same flat, featureless bottom year after year after year. And how they know that this is the same mud splot on the ocean (laughter), I - honestly, I don't know.
JOYCE: But if you disturb that haystack by fishing, for example, the fish leave and don't come back. So the biologists could hear the grunts out there in the coastal ocean. NOAA had numerous buoys and even self-propelled subs with microphones, but pinpointing the haystacks was kind of like finding a needle in the ocean. But then, they got some unexpected help from the local fishing community.
PARIJS: There were actually fishermen around the Massachusetts Bay area that came and just said, you know, we need to use these new technologies that we've seen in the literature to help us.
FRANK MIRARCHI: We know the fish are spawning somewhere in this fairly large area of several hundred square miles. Help us find out where.
JOYCE: That's fishermen Frank Mirarchi. He says the goal is not to catch more cod - just the opposite.
MIRARCHI: We're trying to fish, but not catch cod. That's the new strategy.
JOYCE: Mirarchi has been fishing out of Scituate, Mass., for 52 years. We sat at a picnic table overlooking the Scituate Harbor where dozens of fishing boats lie at anchor. He said, here's why we want to avoid cod. The catch limit for cod now is tiny. A boat may only be allowed a thousand pounds a year. That's not worth much money, so you fish for other so-called groundfish - flounder or haddock. But if your net or hook happens to bring up a cod, you have to keep it. Throw it back, you break the law. And once you've caught your limit of cod, even by accident, that's it. You have to stop fishing for any groundfish.
MIRARCHI: It's very difficult to go fishing for something else. You run the risk of catching too many cod and actually having the fishery be closed for you or for your fellow fishermen because of that catch.
JOYCE: So the fishing community wanted to locate the cod to avoid them. The biologists wanted to find them to protect them. An alliance was born. Mirarchi and his colleagues said, hey, we've been fishing offshore waters for decades. We'll tell you where to put your microphones. Christopher McGuire of the Nature Conservancy, which has been collaborating with the fishing community on all this, says they nailed it.
CHRISTOPHER MCGUIRE: You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that after our first year, the areas where the fishermen said we should look is where the fish were.
JOYCE: McGuire says now biologists have been able to pinpoint spawning sites down to a pretty small area. That means the government doesn't have to cordon off huge tracts of ocean wherever they hear cod grunts, a practice the fishing community didn't like.
MCGUIRE: You know, we're trying to find the middle ground between closing the whole area while still allowing fishermen to be able to fish around it for other target species.
JOYCE: So the biologists now have a tool to find the haystacks where the cod spawn. As for his fishing colleagues, Mirarchi says they're still skeptical that biologists and their microphones will make their jobs easier. But he says in places like Scituate, Mass., there's too much at stake not to try.
MIRARCHI: It's a community, you know? It's not just a dock with a bunch of scruffy-looking guys. It's a community with families and children that learn on the docks, like I did, what fishing is about and make a life of it if they can. I don't want to see that end.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.