All at sea

My goal was to learn about the history of marine fisheries in New England because I felt that narrowing down the geographic region would make the topic manageable- given the amount of information sloshing around in my brain, I should have narrowed more.

Bay scallops, Pecten irradians, were a hit in New York starting around 1859

I started by digging through some pretty old records for lobster and groundfish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, but I found an even older commentary from 1886 on scallops from the Bay of Fundy to the Jersey Shore that, I felt, made a strong statement about our history of harvesting the oceans- according to Ingersoll (1886), in the 30 years since scallops had been introduced to the NY market, exploitation had led to a decline along the Maine and Canadian coast, and the fishery from Long Island Sound to New Jersey had been abandoned.  Looking at the New England fisheries overall, there was a definite pattern of focusing on a marine species, increasing the harvest to an unsustainable level, and then a period of decline. By the early 1900s, for example, there were already conversations about how best to manage protection of lobster stocks because declines were evident (Herrick 1906).

In terms of groundfish (such as cod, haddock, and flounder), technology and the international nature of the Atlantic had a big impact on fishing pressure and the decline-recovery cycles in different areas. Cod was already a focus of the Georges Bank fishing industry by the late 1700s and, as inshore stocks declined in the 1800s, fishermen moved farther from shore and started looking at other species (Murawski et al. 1998), including halibut which was declining before 1900 and haddock which saw a big increase in catches from 1900 to 1929, held relatively stable from 1935 to 1960, and experienced a collapse between 1965 (150,400 tons harvested) and 1974 (4,300 tons harvested) (Clark et al. 1982). Why is this important? Well, switching from species to species doesn’t really deal with the underlying problem of over-fishing- you’re spreading around the pain, but not actually healing the wound. According to Murawski et al.’s (1998) estimate, even with the variety of protections in place in Georges Bank today, most species need 10 years to recover. Without those protections, recovery is slower if at all.

Decaying Atlantic salmon caught in a cod trap leader

What role has technology played? Changes in fishing technology have expanded the industry’s reach for hauls, markets, and environmental impacts. Around the turn of the 20th century, trawling became the common method for harvesting groundfish (Murawski 2005), which helped increase catches but also resulted in large discard of juvenile fish (mesh-size for the haddock fishery was not regulated until 1953 (Murawski et al. 1998) and many smaller fish were caught, injured or killed, and discarded- imagine that you have pea plants and you harvest by putting your hand loosely around the vine and sliding up- yes, you’ll get the ripe pea pods, but you’ll also pull off a lot of the little ones, too, and you won’t have as much to harvest later). Heavy equipment, such as that used for otter trawling, damaged the sea floor habitat as well, and other species could get caught in the nets.

The international crowd got involved starting in the 1960s- distant-water trawling fleets from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world put increased pressure on fish stocks off the New England coast. These ships concentrated fishing efforts on specific species in specific locations, then switched to different species when catches fell too low (Murawski 2005), and the pressure on some stocks was too much: haddock numbers collapsed between 1965 and 1974, and cod harvests hit a peak of about 1.9 million tons in 1968 and then saw a sharp decline (Lear 1998). We responded with regular stock monitoring starting in 1963, limited/no distant-water fleet access within 200 miles of the US coast, and quotas and then indirect controls (Murawski et al. 1998), but, even with foreign fleets gone, modernization within the US fishing industry cut short moderate recoveries in the late 1970s and both haddock and flounder stocks collapsed in the second half of the 1980s. Cod stocks also declined sharply after 1989 (Lear 1998). A Canadian task force felt that fish mortality from cod fishing since 1978 on Georges Bank had been possibly three times higher than that recommended (Serchuk & Wigley 1993). Management since 1994 has been more direct (closed areas, stricter limits, etc.), and the situation in Georges Bank has improved, but efforts in the Gulf of Maine have not been as successful (Murawski et al. 1998).

There have been definite boom-and-bust cycles in New England fisheries, particularly when it comes to cod and haddock, and I imagine that what I’ve described here has played out with many species in many locations around the world as we take more from marine resources that can be sustained. I know quite a few people working to better understand the ecosystem dynamics of areas off the New England coast so that fish stocks can get the support they need and fishermen can have fairly reliable hauls. But it’s a pretty complicated issue because there are so many variables involved, some of which we are just starting to recognize. For my next post, I’ll take a look at current lines of research and what the prospects for the future seem to be- hopefully the big picture is getting clearer.


Works Cited:

Clark, S.H., Overholtz, W.J., and R.C. Hennemuth. 1982. Review and assessment of the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine haddock fishery. Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science 3: 1-27.

Herrick, F.H. 1906. Effective protection for the lobster fishery. Science 23(591): 650-655.

Ingersoll, E. 1886. The scallop and its fishery. The American Naturalist 20(12): 1001-1006.

Lear, W.H. 1998. History of fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic: the 500-year perspective. Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science 23: 41-73.

Murawski, S.A. 2005. The New England groundfish resource: a history of population change in relation to harvesting. In Buchsbaum, R., Pederson, J. and W.E. Robinson eds., The Decline of Fisheries Resources in New England: Evaluating the Impact of Overfishing, Contamination, and Habitat Degradation. MIT Sea Grant College Program, Cambridge, MA: 11-24.

Murawski, S.A., Brown, R.W., Cadrin, S.X., Mayo, R.K., O’Brien, L., Overholtz, W.J., and K.A. Sosebee. 1998. New England groundfish. In: Our Living Oceans: Report on the Status of U.S. Living Marine Resources, 1998. National Marine Fisheries Service, on-line version: Feature Article 2,

Serchuck, F.M. and S.E. Wigley. 1993. Assessment and management of the Georges Bank cod fishery: an historical review and evaluation. Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science 13: 52-52.