Capt. Gregory Mayhew, a Vineyard native and lifelong resident of Chilmark, runs the 75-foot steel dragger Unicorn out of Menemsha. This summer, for the first time in more than 20 years, he went sea scalloping.
The reason, he said, is economics.
If Captain Mayhew wanted to go for groundfish, he would travel far to the east to find them, on Cultivator Shoal, more than 115 miles away on the eastern end of Georges Bank.
There are few incentives to go that far. The money being paid to fishermen is low and the price of fuel is high. On top of that, if Captain Mayhew went out now, he would be using up his allowable days at sea, which are best saved for the seasons when the price of fish goes up.
So this summer Captain Mayhew turned the rusting, blue-hulled Unicorn to new purpose, steaming east of Nantucket and dropping his huge steel drags into the Atlantic Ocean for sea scallops, which offer a steadier, more reliable market.
"Right now there aren't any cod around," the captain said. Now 59, he recalls fishing in the 1950s for local cod from November until March. "You could jig them right off Gay Head around Thanksgiving."
But Captain Mayhew believes that as many as 100 fishermen this summer have shifted from finfishing to sea scalloping.
Cod, once the most important fish in the waters of southeastern New England, is on the verge of collapse.
The numbers tell the story.
In 1966, when large fishing fleets dragged for cod on Georges Bank, fishermen landed 53,853 metric tons of cod from the bank.
In 2004, fishermen landed 4,583 metric tons.
While the drop in landings is tied to legal restrictions on fishing - nearly a third, or 6,000 square miles, of Georges Bank is closed to fishing, and fishermen are limited in how many days they can spend at sea - it also reflects how poor the fishing has become.
Huge areas of Georges Bank that once yielded vast amounts of cod are now barren of any fish, including cod.
Scientists are concerned not only about the adult cod population, but also about the number of cod being born, which is the future of the fishery.
Unless drastic measures are taken to protect the females, scientists say, there may not be enough fish left to bring about recovery.
Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council received the latest assessment on the state of fish stocks on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine.
The news was bad. Most stocks, especially cod, remain in bad shape. Scientists say seven times more cod is needed on Georges Bank to make the fishery sustainable.
Armed with that information, the council in the coming months will consider adopting even more stringent measures to curtail overfishing.
Much of the information was generated from spring and fall trawl surveys done over the past several years by the Albatross IV, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel.
In a 10-day trip late last March and early April the Albatross IV collected net samples across Georges Bank, from south of Noman's Land all the way to the eastern end of the Canadian-held portion of the bank. In 72 tows for samples, scientists found few cod, even though regulators have taken dramatic steps over the last 20 years to curtail overfishing.
The Albatross IV scientists found nearly no cod south of Martha's Vineyard, south of Nantucket or in the traditionally productive areas of Georges Bank. They found cod still in residence only in the far eastern end of Georges Bank and in a small pocket in the Great South Channel, just south of Chatham.
One leg of a much broader sampling of the waters from New Jersey to the Gulf of Maine, the trip showed that cod is not the only species of fish in trouble.
After cruising and sampling across 1,530 miles, scientists aboard the Albatross IV only saw two young Atlantic halibut. Made famous in Rudyard Kipling's 1897 book Captains Courageous, Atlantic halibut was once the mainstay fish of Georges Bank and the Grand Banks.
Today halibut numbers have dropped so low that regulators may consider designating the fish an endangered species. A National Marine Fisheries Service stock assessment of Atlantic halibut describes the fish as depleted. The World Conservation Union - an international organization whose mission is to protect the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is ecologically sustainable - already lists Atlantic halibut as endangered.
But it was not all bad news for scientists aboard the Albatross IV.
Haddock, a cousin to cod, appears to be in the midst of a significant recovery. The Albatross IV harvested and examined hundreds of pounds of juvenile haddock, anywhere from a few inches long to six inches in length.
A visit to any fish market or grocery store shows haddock is quickly becoming the fish of choice in the market.
The commercial fishing community is pressuring regulators to allow fishing for haddock in now-closed areas of Georges Bank. This is especially troubling to scientists who are concerned that the move would cause even more overfishing of cod, a fellow groundfish. Haddock and cod are known as groundfish because of their penchant for staying near the ocean bottom.
Robert Lane, a New Bedford fisherman who owns two fishing boats, wants to harvest the haddock out there. "I think it is badly managed. We want access to the haddock," he said. "I've got two big boats. We like to fish January through April, that is when the price is best. We like to have our landings during Lent, that is when the prices are high, that is when we make our money. We will leave 11 million pounds of haddock out there. The fish will probably swim over to Canada and be harvested over there."
Scientists concerned about cod include David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council. The council oversees the management of cod and most fish stocks on Georges Bank.
He described the state of the cod in stark terms.
"Northern cod stocks around Newfoundland to the north have collapsed. The government has implemented a moratorium on any further landings of cod. Although they have over the years eased the restrictions with some small quotas, the overall northern cod is still collapsed. The big question is why," he said.
Of the north European cod, Mr. Pierce said: "I do know that the cod fishery is a shade of its former self in the North Sea."
Mr. Pierce said he has serious concerns about cod on Georges Bank. For 15 years, he said, the number of cod born on the bank has been below average. The conclusion is obvious: if not enough baby cod are being born, stocks essentially will fade away.
"If we continue to get no young fish, then we have a looming collapse," he said. "There are now fewer adults than there used to be. If we don't see promising signs, we could have looming collapse of codfish stocks."
The Conservation Law Foundation, a regional environmental advocacy organization that has kept a close watch on fisheries management in New England, has its own assessment of the status of cod in the region's waters.
"Cod for us is the poster child of everything wrong with fisheries management in New England," said Priscilla Brooks, director of marine conservation for the foundation.
Ms. Brooks is up in arms over the fact that regulators still allow the harvest of Georges Bank cod, which she said is only at 14 per cent of what would count as a healthy population.
Statistics gathered from the trawl survey, together with landings data at the dock, help scientists assess the status of various fish species.
Teri Frady, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said scientists are now updating groundfish assessments through the calendar year 2004. "Those will be the first picture we have of the effects of the management measures in place between the fall of 2001 and December 2004. The picture will include six months of fishing under the Amendment 13," she said.
Amendment 13, the current management plan that sets limits on fishing, includes an array of efforts intended to protect fish stocks.
Fisheries managers have restricted fishing in two basic ways: by closing areas of the ocean to fishermen, and by limiting the number of days a fisherman may pursue groundfish. The limits are called days at sea. The average commercial fisherman pursuing groundfish is now limited to about 50 days at sea per year.
Ms. Frady said the results of the assessment will come before the New England Fishery Management Council this month.
The New England council is one of eight regional councils in the nation charged with protecting resources.
Paul Howard, executive director of the council, calls rebuilding cod the number one fishery concern.
"It is the stock that helped build New England and it is the stock by which our successes are measured," Mr. Howard said.
He attributes the problems with cod to more than overfishing.
"There are changing environmental conditions," he said. "Water temperature on Georges Bank is three degrees above average over the last three years. We are in the southern range of cod. Cod needs cold water," he said, adding:
"There are environmental impacts to our neighbors to the north and off Norway. Some scientists say it is environmental - that is not to lessen the point that it is also overfishing."
Conservation groups are pushing to raise public awareness about the declining cod fish stocks. One group, The Seafood Choices Alliance, publishes an awareness card listing fish that are in good environmental shape and those that are not. The alliance lists the Atlantic cod as a fish to avoid.
Lee Crockett, the executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization concerned about fish management, said the work of the conservation groups is difficult because the public usually does not become aware of a problem until it is too late.
"Most people's relationship with the ocean begins at the shoreline," Mr. Crockett said. "Some people go fishing, some dive and they have a greater appreciation. When you talk about fish populations, habitat and fish, most people don't know what you are talking about."
But Captain Mayhew of Menemsha knows all too well. He and his brother, Jonathan, who runs the sister dragger Quitsa Strider II, are now struggling to make their living as ground fishermen.
Sons of a commercial fisherman, the Mayhew brothers operate the last two draggers on Martha's Vineyard. They know they may be the last remnants of the Vineyard's seafaring legacy.
"We won't be able to keep fishing as we've done for generations," Captain Mayhew said. "It gets worse every year. It gets harder and harder to make a living."