History Of Marine Animal Populations: Gulf Of Maine Cod Project

Project Summary:
Frenchman's Bay fishing schooner Emeline
The pencil drawing decorates the back cover of the log of the Frenchman’s Bay fishing schooner Emeline, William H. Ward, master,1864 [NARA Waltham RG 36 (Log and Fishing agreement: Box 3, E-104)].

We extract data from historical fisheries records to: model species and ecosystem baselines in the distant past; track changes over very long periods of time; investigate synergistic interactions between humans and marine ecosystem; and discover forgotten snapshots of past abundance and distribution of marine species.


Historical marine ecology projects such as this restore our knowledge of marine abundance predating large scale human impact, addressing what Daniel Pauly named the “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” They establish species and ecosystem metrics against which present day conditions may be measured. Historical abundance, distribution, and biodiversity data can improve management targets by showing what systems once supported. Images and narratives from the past can also inspire a sense of wonder and communicate the importance of restoration to the public.

  • Funded by: Gulf of Maine Area Program (GoMA), NH Sea Grant (NOAA), Mia Tegner Foundation, History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Marine Sanctuary Program (NOAA), The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Gulf of Maine, Scotian Shelf, 2003-2004

Project Detail:

Ecosystem approaches to management require understanding of long-term and place-based interactions between natural and human processes. Using historical documents, ecologists and historians from the History of Marine Animal Population’s Gulf of Maine Cod Project (GMCP) investigate how past human activities affected marine ecosystems, and those ecosystems shaped cultural change in the Northwest Atlantic. This research focuses on relationships among coastal communities, fisheries, marine species, regulation, and early ocean science.

Our first project, funded by HMAP, analyzed catch data in logbooks from the Beverly, Massachusetts, cod fleet on Canada’s Scotian Shelf between 1852 and 1859. Since log keepers often recorded encounters on the grounds with vessels from other ports and fishing effort was consistent, we estimated both the size of the Scotian Shelf fleet and total catch. Employing a modified Chapman-DeLury fishery stock assessment model, we estimated the biomass for Scotian Shelf cod in 1852 to be 1.26 million metric tons (mt). In 2002 total cod biomass in Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization statistical areas that encompass the Scotian Shelf and extend beyond it, was estimated to be less than 50,000 mt – about 4% of the adult biomass in 1852. Adult cod biomass within these divisions was only about 0.3% of the biomass of adult cod in 1852.

A project funded by the National Science Foundation, GMCP is currently examining the Gulf of Maine cod fishery in the 1850s and 60s to determine landings, spatial distribution of cod and bait species, and traditional fishing strategies employed by hook and line fishermen. Our preliminary findings show that the inshore fishery from Penobscot Bay east was part of a mixed fishing and farming economy, and differed radically from the Massachusetts offshore fishery. Maine inshore fishermen depended on fresh bait to a greater degree than the offshore fleets, so cod fishing effort had a secondary ecosystem effect of depleting bait species. Discrete choice modeling is employed to analyze and describe fishermen’s historic knowledge systems, risk taking and decision making.

With funds from NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, we are constructing an ecological history of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Starting with explorers’ narratives in the early 1600s and ending with Bureau of Fisheries reports in the 1930s, we are creating very long-term time series, quantifying change in fishing communities and ecosystems. Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping integrates quantitative and qualitative historical data on marine species, habitat and human demographics, facilitating spatial analysis and visualization. Trophic level and food web analyses indicate past ecosystem complexity and species richness.

We are also recovering narratives showing what the Gulf of Maine looked like through the eyes of the fishermen who labored there since 1602, and producing a documentary film on the subject with Compass Light Productions in Camden ME.

Historical Data Sources:

This project is based on documents found through archival research in National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) sites at Waltham MA, College Park MD, Washington DC; Smithsonian Library, Washington DC; Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport ME; Bangor Public Library, Bangor ME; Craig Brook Hatchery, Orland ME; Fogler Library Special Collections, University of Maine, Orono ME; Maine State Archives, Augusta ME; Sullivan Historical Society; Sullivan ME, Boothbay Historical Society; Boothbay ME; Maine Maritime Museum, Bath ME; Maine Historical Society, Portland ME, Old Berwick Historical Society, South Berwick ME; Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth NH; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA; Baker Library at Harvard University, Cambridge MA; Beverly Historical Society, Beverly MA, Marblehead Historical Society, Marblehead MA; Cape Ann Historical Society, Gloucester MA; Gloucester Archives, Gloucester MA, and private archives.


Alexander, K.E., W.B. Leavenworth, J. Cournane, A.B. Cooper, S. Claesson, S. Brennan, G. Smith, L. Rains, K. Magness, R. Dunn, T.K. Law, R. Gee, W.J. Bolster and A.A. Rosenberg. 2009. Gulf of Maine cod in 1861: historical analysis of fishery logbooks, with ecosystem implications. Fish and Fisheries 10(4): 428–449 PDF

Rosenberg, Swasey, Bowman. 2006. Rebuilding US Fisheries: Progress and Problems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4(6):303-308.

Schrope, M. 2006. The Real Sea Change. Nature 443: 622-624 PDF

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