The Battle of the Cod is back. Each year, the fisheries managers and fishermen struggle to determine the size of the allowable cod catch. The backdrop, of course, is that cod have been severely over-fished, but that’s only part of it. Cod are a long-lived fish, and they mature late. A cod needs to be four to six years old in order to reproduce, and fishermen have been harvesting the majority of the mature cod who could have spawned the next generation. The majority? Well, yes. According to the British government fisheries experts, there are currently 200 million year-old cod in the North Sea, but only 18 million three-year old-fish. After that, things get really shocking: there may be only 400 remaining twelve-to-thirteen year-old fish in the entire North Sea. In other words, it may not be possible for the cod to rebound at all.
The New England Fishery Management Council has recommended breathtakingly sharp cuts of 77% in the catch-limit to try to preserve the remaining stock until they are old enough to breed again. The fishermen of Cape Cod, not surprisingly, are arguing that such cuts will shut down the industry entirely, as they will be unable to take enough fish to earn even a meager living. As in most difficult struggles, both sides are undeniably right. The fishermen are struggling to hold onto a life they find meaningful, work that satisfies them, their towns and communities and a way of life stretching back hundreds of years. The painful truth is that in order to secure a next generation of cod-fishers, it may be necessary for this generation to fade away.
What neither side is noticing is that Cape Cod is some of the lowest and most exposed land in the country. If sea levels rise as predicted, the desire of fishermen to stay where they are will be largely irrelevant, as storms and floods destroy the very communities they are fighting to preserve.
I wonder how often we are like the fishermen and Fisheries Authority: pouring our energy into problems that seem important and immediately pressing while ignoring more serious issues that lie directly under our feet. I wonder how often I devote my own energy to what is not crucial precisely because I am afraid of engaging the things that are.
We are now two days into Lent, a season consecrated to the work of getting real. Part of that work is discerning what is real, what are the important things from which we hide. Where are we exceeding our limits? In what ways are we eating our seed-corn? Are we bringing our real concerns into our prayers? Are we using our worship and ministries to hide from what troubles us or requires more of us than we are eager to give? In what ways is Jesus trying to trouble our peace?
One footnote: if you have given up meat for Lent this year, or if you are eating fish on Fridays, it might be wise to skip the cod.
(Information on cod populations and catch limits comes from two articles in the New York Times: “The Shocking News About Cod” (Editorial, September 23, 2012) and “Officials Back Deep Cuts in Atlantic Cod Harvest to Save Industry” (Katharine Seelye and Jess Bigood, January 30, 2013).)