I Went for a Dive in the Gulf of Maine and I Saw One Fish

Historically the breadbasket of North America, the Gulf of Maine is now empty
By Nirupam Nigam

As a child, I was lucky enough to spend my summers with my grandparents in Maine (aka, Vacationland). This meant hot, humid days exploring lighthouses along a rugged coast, the occasional thunderstorm, and plenty of lobster rolls. Pungent fish markets with equally pungent people were always stocked full of crabs, monkfish, haddock, and, of course, lobster - sometimes as low as $4 a pound! With their mountains of ice and proximity to the North Atlantic fishing fleet, these markets have deep-seated history stretching back before 16th century European settlement in North America - a time when Cod remained supreme in the North American seascape. But as the winds of time lap up against North Atlantic shores, the cod have since been overfished and replaced by other, lesser species. By 1992, Atlantic Cod populations reached 1% of their historical levels, never to recover.

A lighthouse in Cape Cod which received its namesake from legendary cod populations

After returning to the region with experience working as a fisheries scientist, I began to notice an interesting trend....the distribution of fish in the markets looked a lot different from my childhood. If you walk into a Maine fish market now, you'll see a lot more foreign species as well as fish that you would never expect would be edible. Take the sea robin for instance. Last month, I visited a market filled to the brim with these rather odd-looking, bony creatures. A little chalkboard perched up next to their icy bodies simply stated "for stews." Clearly the choice fish have all since "swam away." 

An original New England fisherman's hut - and the original inspiration for the tavern in the opening scene of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"

It was on this recent venture to New England that I was invited to tour the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution - a world-renowned center for ocean research and the home of the HOV Alvin. While speaking to the lead scientist at the Fisheries Oceanography and Larval Fish Ecology Lab, I learned something that struck me as alarming. Experimental fisheries were being set up far off the coast of New England in search of new fishing grounds in the mesopelagic or twilight zone. That's when I knew the health of New England fisheries was definitely in dire straits. Fish in the twilight zone are small, gooey, and far and few between. When I posed the question, "why would anyone fish out there?," I received a chilling response: "That's the next place to fish once we fish out everything along the coast. It hasn't been very profitable." 

The campus and the RV Neil Armstrong at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

This revelation left me itching to get myself and my camera below the cold, gray, temperamental waters of the North Atlantic. I wanted to see this ancient seascape for myself before it was fully exploited - a seascape that has sustained North America for centuries. 

After a four hour drive up the coast to the Gulf of Maine and a bout of Covid, I met up with two dive buddies who were finishing up their doctoral research at the University of Maine. "Don't get your hopes up," they said, "there's not much to see around here." On a given dive, they told me that they only saw a few fish and maybe a lobster. In fact, they were studying what happens to algal populations after all the cod have been fished out and the urchins have been shipped off to Asia. Apparently, all that's left is a lot of seaweed. 

A sea star and kelp on the rocky reef of Cape Elizabeth, Maine

We pulled into Twin Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth Maine, trunks packed full of dive gear. A chilly ocean breeze hit my face as I opened my car door. I noticed a decrepit old lighthouse saddling a cliff over looking the Atlantic. "That's it," my buddy said, "the dive site is underneath that lighthouse." Thankfully the swell was calm - one wrong step in the rocky shore meant a hard fall with a lot of equipment and heavy camera gear. After donning thick fleece undergarments and dry suits, we entered the chilly, 42°F water and steadily back-kicked out to sea. As I swam I noticed a string of buoys that followed the contour of the coast. The water was shallow so I dipped my head under to see strings of lobster traps. All of them were empty. 

An empty lobster trap in the shallow water of Cape Elizabeth in the Gulf of Maine

As we drifted over the dive site, we gave each other the ok and descended into green, murky depths. The rocky terrain below formed ridges that traversed deeper and deeper out to sea. Following one of these ridges, we swam waiting for critters to pass by. We swam and swam...and swam. Occasionally, we would see a small crab among beds of seaweed or a jellyfish floating through the water. Invasive vase tunicates (Ciona intestinalis) coated the sea floor. But the seascape was otherwise barren, and an eerie calm percolated through the ocean.

Invasive vase tunicates (Ciona intestinalis) cover the sea floor

Most disturbingly, in our full 70 minute dive - long by most people's standards - I only saw one fish. It was a small, unassuming sculpin, well camouflaged among the seaweed. In my 12 years of diving experience around the world, I have never been on a dive with just one fish. It's the equivalent of walking through a forest but only seeing one tree. Or witnessing the last bison standing solitary in the Great Plains. The North Atlantic is witnessing the biological end of an era.

Not my best photo, but this is the one little sculpin I saw. The only fish on the dive.

Now don't me wrong. There is some seasonality when it comes to fish or lobster populations. But I have dived in other regions of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Even in traditional Norwegian fishing ports, I have seen thousands more pollock, cod, and haddock than I saw that day in the Gulf of Maine. It's the ocean. There should be plenty of other fish in the sea. 

A small jellyfish floats by in the empty waters of Cape Elizabeth

In my days spent collecting fisheries data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it was easy to get lost in the numbers. The catches I saw landed would turn into data sheets to be filed away in a far off government office. It's easy to forget those millions of pounds of fish on our data sheets are real events, in the real world. They translate to empty oceans. And as an underwater photographer, it translates to a lack of photo subjects. North Atlantic cod stocks might be a lost cause. After all, they are a case study for what scientists call the "vortex of extinction." But perhaps these photos can remind us of what is at stake in the rest of the world if we don't take a hard look at our industrial fishing practices. So take a look at these empty photos. They are a reminder of what was, and what can be.

A hermit crab eyes the curious photographer starting back at it


There's Always Something You Can Do.


Here are a few things I learned that can stop the rest of the world from becoming the Gulf of Maine. 


  1. Swim without sunscreen. Sunscreen hurts coral.
  2. Pick up trash. There's a lot of it.
  3. Take a picture of a fish, but not too many. 
  4. Know where your seafood comes from. Buy from sustainable fisheries. Use the Seafood Watch App.
  5. Eat farmed bivalve shellfish. Its even better for the environment than going vegetarian. Just ask Ray Hilborn
  6.  Eat baitfish, such as sardines and anchovies.  Its better for the environment than eating other fish.
  7. Don't eat shark fin soup
  8. Harvest as much as you need (within legal limits), but not more.
  9. Try to keep off the bottom when you're diving. Use a finger on a rock for stability. 
  10. Dive local
  11. Support artificial reefs like shipwrecks, decommissioned oil rigs, etc.
  12. Keep your pets away from tide pools (you'd be surprised what they can eat)
  13. Go hang out at the beach. The more people there, the more people care.



Nirupam Nigam is the Editor-in-Chief of the Underwater Photography Guide and the President of Bluewater Photo - the world's top underwater photo & video retailer. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. After receiving degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, Nirupam worked as a fisheries observer on vessels in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. Since then, Nirupam has been a full time underwater photographer and photo gear head. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!


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