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New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA

 

PROFILE:

Dave Martins on fishing boat

Dave Martins, Research Biologist, University of Massachusetts

Dave Martins often goes out with local fishermen trying to find out exactly what went wrong with the fisheries near New Bedford. “We go out and measure and tag fish and release them into the ocean,” says Martins. “It’s critical that we can understand more about where fish travel, how far they travel and as well as the growth of fish.”

Ultimately scientists discovered the answer; the fishermen of New Bedford were simply too good at catching fish. “I think no one really realized that cod were going to collapse and stay down for so long,” says Martins.

POINTS OF VIEW:

Carl Safina, Blue Ocean Institute

If the water wasn’t there hiding all these things that we’re doing a lot of us would really be appalled just as we were appalled when we learned about the fact that the buffalo herds were being destroyed the fact that the flocks of passenger pigeons and water fowl that darken the skies were no more. It’s the same exact mentality. Its just moved away from the land into the sea.

Andrew Light, George Mason University

We are a people of the sea and when that gets lost it would be as important a loss as if for some reason we lost our relationship with the land. We certainly don’t’ want to lose the forms of knowledge that we have gained over hundreds and thousands of years of having some kind of relationship with the oceans and with the seas.




To an outsider New Bedford still looks like a thriving city. But if you take a closer look, it soon becomes obvious that it's anything but thriving. Today New Bedford has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Many fishermen are angry and often ask each other in frustrated candor: “how could we have ever let the cod disappear?”

New Bedford's United Fishermen's Club
New Bedford's United Fishermen's Club

For over three centuries Portuguese whalers and cod fishermen emigrated from their homes 3,000 miles to the west across the Atlantic Ocean to live and work the in the fertile north Atlantic fisheries. The members of New Bedford's United Fishermen's Club have much in common with the fishermen in their ancestral home of Portugal. They speak the same language and celebrate with great passion an independent way of life. Unfortunately they too are victims of the collapse of the cod fishery.

The impact of losing a fishery goes well beyond economics. All too often, when a fishing fleet shuts down, an entire community dies with it. Today New Bedford is trying to remake itself into a tourist attraction. Its historic district has been restored to the way it looked when author Herman Melville shipped out of here in 1847.

Bethel Seamen's Chapel
Bethel Seamen's Chapel

In the middle of the old town stands the Bethel Seamen's Chapel, which inspired Melville to write a scene that was recreated during the filming of the 1956 screen adaptation of his novel Moby-Dick. Today the Bethel Seamen's Chapel is a popular tourist attraction. Though its pulpit is a modest recreation of a movie set, the chapel's ancient walls are authentic. Filled with Portuguese names and ghostly memories, the “wall of the disappeared” catalogs the names of the people who sailed away — and never came back.

If New Bedford becomes nothing more than a tourist attraction, we will have lost something far more precious than a fishing fleet. The fate of New Bedford and the loss of the Atlantic cod offers a cautionary tale for fisheries around the world, especially now that scientists have discovered that we are consuming the final ten percent of the planet's large fish.



RELATED CONTENT:


Read more about The State of the Planet's Oceans:
Introduction | Aveiro | Belize | Calcutta | Dry Tortugas | Greenland | Lima | New Bedford

 

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