FISHERMEN VS. SCIENTISTS: Are cod getting scarce, or not?

Federal regulators are considering the unthinkable in New England: severely restricting — maybe even shutting down — cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, from north of Cape Cod clear up to Canada. New data suggest that the status of the humble fish that has sustained the region for centuries is much worse than previously thought. Fishermen insist that there are plenty of cod and that the real problem is fuzzy science. They say the data are grossly inconsistent, pointing to a 2008 federal report that concluded that Gulf of Maine cod, though historically overfished, were well on the way to recovery.

The news is causing high anxiety in Massachusetts, where a wooden “Sacred Cod” has hung in the State House for more than 200 years and the fishing industry, though struggling, still figures prominently in the state’s identity.

So what do you trust — reports of catches, or mathematical models of the overall population?

UPDATE: Reader Fred Butzen writes:

Please don’t be so fast to dismiss the math models based on stable or increased catches. The techology of commercial fishing has improved enormously over the last couple decades. Catches may be stable or
increasing even as the stock decreases, because fishermen are better able to find the fish and catch them than they were twenty or thirty years ago. This is not necessarily an either/or situation.

Oh, I wasn’t dismissing the models. It was a genuine question. It’s hard to know how many fish are out there.