New England Fisheries

Fishery Management in New England: Past, Present, and Hopes for the Future

Peter Shelley is Senior Counsel at CLF Massachusetts. Until 2010, Peter served as Vice President and Director of CLF Massachusetts.

In New England, humans have been fishing commercially for some four hundred years and fishing for food for thousands of years.  So, with so much experience under our belts, why is fisheries management in this region still such a mess? In a nutshell, I’d place responsibility on the “tragedy of the commons,” articulated best perhaps by biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin demonstrated that with open access to public resources, a group of people will inevitably drive the resource to ruin even as each individual is pursuing his own best economic and social interests. Hardin’s prescription for avoiding this tragedy was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” Fisheries management is exactly that:  mutual coercion, even if it isn’t always mutually agreed upon by everyone.

However, operating under a self-serving myth that the ocean’s bounty is without limit—and one can still hear a few fishermen make that claim today—New Englanders have routinely allowed too much effort to chase a finite number of fish. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon or one that is driven primarily by the enormous technology advances of the past twenty years. The dory fleet that launched from sail-driven vessels collapsed the fabled New England halibut fishery in the late 1800s just as surely as modern fishermen collapsed the groundfish (species of cod, haddock, and flounders) in the 1990s.

While in days gone by, this overfishing could perhaps have been blamed on foreign fleets fishing in U.S. waters, it is now a purely domestic problem, since the foreign fishing fleet has been gone from our waters since the 1976. The foreign ships were quickly replaced and surpassed by a domestic New England fleet that grew exponentially in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Open access fisheries that anyone could enter, powerful new fishing boats, and a flood of new electronic technology that increased the fishing power of each boat in the 1980s and 1990s sealed our fate. A collapsed fishery was inevitable, and New England’s groundfish hit their nadir in the mid-1990s with cod stocks reaching the lowest levels ever recorded in the region.

Unloading fish in Gloucester Harbor in 1955 (Photo by Gilbert Weed, courtesy of NEFSC)

CLF sued the federal government in 1991 in an effort to stave off this collapse and save fish populations and fishing jobs.  A new fishery management plan went into effect in 1995 in response to this legal action, but in retrospect, it was too little, too late. The next fifteen years in New England were an endless struggle as managers attempted to re-balance available fishing pressure with the far less available fish populations. Many fishermen who were fishing as part of the “irrational exuberance” of the 1980s and 1990s were forced out of the fishery. Some went to other fisheries, others stopped fishing altogether: another economic bubble burst.

Rational fisheries management has also struggled with scientific estimates of fish population sizes and interactions. Since there is no technology capable of actually counting fish, all fish population estimates are exactly that: estimates. New England has some of the best fisheries scientists in the world, and our long fishing history and databases do allow fairly accurate estimates of fish population trends. But the fishery models are only as good as the data going into them, and that data is both limited and, in the case of mortality data coming from unmonitored fishing boats, sometimes questionable.

The consequences of this systemic mismanagement of the ocean’s bounty produced a impoverished legacy that will be with the region for years to come. Some species, like the iconic Atlantic cod on Georges Bank, are not expected to be rebuilt until 2026. Some flounder species are in even worse shape and suffering from chronic pollution effects as well. And some species, like Atlantic wolffish, qualify for endangered species listing, in our opinion.

Nevertheless, there is reason to hope that recent action by the fishery managers to set strict science-based limits on fish catch and accountability measures for fishermen who exceed those limits will help bring the region to a more sustainable equilibrium. In fact, we may be looking at the first fishing year in 50 years in which there is no overfishing of any groundfish. New management options allow fishermen to cooperate with each other by forming sectors, which provide them with greater flexibility, safety, and control over when they land their fish.

Consolidation of boats, job losses, and the distribution of fishing access rights to the recovered fish populations remain significant issues over which reasonable people will disagree. Who gets to catch the fish is just one example. In earlier times, fishing was pursued primarily by land-based owners with sea-going employees, and fishermen even belonged to unions. Now there is a mix of owner-operator boats and owner-worker boats, and many in the region, including those involved with Talking Fish, would like to see that mixed fleet of small and larger boats continue so that fresh, locally caught fish will continue to come into as many ports in the region as possible.  That is a solution worthy of this region.


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