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Consolidation in the New England Groundfish Fishery is Not New: The 80-20 Rule

The first fishing year under the new sector management system came to a close last week, and while a detailed analysis of the social and economic effects of the new system has yet to be released, consolidation in the groundfish fleet will continue to be on everyone’s mind, as it should be. This is an economy based on a public resource and the public needs to pay attention to the winners and losers that any management system creates.

Many critics of sectors and catch share programs claim that the new system has led to increased consolidation within the industry, with quota leasing allowing wealthier boat owners to buy quota from small-boat fishermen who don’t have enough quota to make fishing profitable, don’t have enough money to buy more of it, and see tying up for the season and leasing the quota they do have as the only financially viable alternative. This scenario leads to a less diverse fishing fleet with a minority of the boats controlling a majority of the allowable catch.

The number of permitted multispecies vessels actively landing groundfish has decreased from 1996 to 2007 (Source: CapLog White Paper)

But while consolidation may be present in the New England groundfish fishery, it is not a new or sector-caused phenomenon, as a white paper, “Consolidation of the New England Multispecies Fishery between 1996 and 2007,” released last spring from the CapLog Group, makes clear (CapLog White Paper). This paper found that maximum consolidation occurred between 1996 and 2007 (the most recent year for which data was available at the time the report was written). This was a time when the number of vessels actively landing groundfish fell by about 40%, from around 1450 vessels to around 820 vessels, while fleetwide landings decreased only 10%.  In 2007, about 30% of the 820 multispecies vessels actively landing groundfish landed nearly 90% of fleetwide groundfish landings, while about 50% of these 820 vessels landed just 2% of the total groundfish harvest.

The CapLog Group found that the northeast multispecies fishery followed a familiar pattern, which they call the “80-20 rule,” throughout the years 1996-2007, with about 20% of vessels harvesting about 80% of groundfish in each year throughout that time period, and with about half of active vessels landing under 5% of the total catch in each year. Indeed, this 80-20 rule is a familiar pattern of catch distribution in fisheries around the United States and is not generally considered to be evidence of consolidation.

In 2007, about 20% of the multispecies vessels actively landing groundfish landed about 80% of total groundfish landings, a pattern that has existed since at least 1996 (Source: CapLog White Paper)

New Englanders want a diverse fleet with a thriving day boat fishery and an economically successful offshore fishery, so it is important to track this issue with real data. It is too early to draw any conclusions about whether the sector program implemented in 2010 has accelerated or restricted this consolidation pattern in New England; that probably won’t be known until the fall. The history here, however, is important to bear in mind as a baseline as any analysis of present and future consolidation in the multispecies groundfish fishery moves forward.


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