"With the development of the haddock fillet, beginning about 1921
or 1922, this product has become more and more popular, and the
haddock has been exploited so rapidly that its production more than
doubled in three or four years... It became apparent that this
exploitation of haddock could not increase indefinitely. Indeed we
are already approaching the limit of this fish. What, then, is to
Harden F. Taylor
Fishing Gazette - 1931
Along with the switch from schooners to trawlers, the targets of
the fishery changes as well. Developments in cold storage,
marketing and distribution allowed for the use of fresh fish in
areas far from the fishing ports. Rather than salt cod,
the industry switched to haddock. The development of the fish fillet,
and practical methods for freezing and storage of frozen fish meant
that Americans in the interior could now get products not
heretofore available. Landings of haddock shot up rapidly, as
demand grew. This period witnesses the development of the fresh
fish industry, and the consequences of the shift in target species
to the utilization of the groundfish resource.
"It is only in the last few years when the fishing fleet has
suffered from a marked scarcity of haddock that the folly of (the)
belief in the inexhaustibility of nature has become potent".
Transactions of the American
Fisheries Society 1932
The sudden rise in popularity of haddock resulted in
early signs of stress in the population, and landings plummeted. Scientists
were asked to study causes of the drop in landings, and to recommend
conservation measures. In reaction to changes in stock size, the fleet moved into
waters off Canada (as the salt cod industry had in earlier years).
Biologists of the day recommended increasing net mesh sizes, but no formal
agreement was forthcoming. Profitability of the fishing industry declined
significantly through the Great Depression. Later in this era, the outbreak
of WW II resulted in prosperity as war-time protein demands and a shortage
of large fishing vessels that were conscripted for military activities.
After the war, lower demand and more vessels resulted in very low
profitability. The rise and fall of the redfish industry is a classic story
of the consequences of unrestrained development of a nonsustainable
"...try to imagine a mobile and completely self-contained timber-
cutting machine that could smash through the roughest trails of the
forest, cut down trees, mill them, and deliver consumer-ready
lumber in half the time of normal logging and milling operations.
This was exactly what factory trawlers did -- this was exactly
their effect on fish -- in the forests of the deep. It could not
long go unnoticed".
The presence of distant water fleets off the coast of the USA was
universally denounced by the domestic industry -- perhaps one of the few
issues on which consensus was ever achieved. Declining fish stocks, and
lower domestic landings resulted first in an agreement within ICNAF to
reduce foreign catches, and finally to the passage of the Magnuson Act,
which gave the U.S. jurisdiction in waters out to 200 miles. The industry
supported research showing the harmful effects of overexploitation,
particularly to support our negotiating position in ICNAF.
At this time both the U.S. and Canadian fishing industries and scientists
were united against the non-North American factions to protect the coastal
states' interests. But the Magnuson Act contained provisions more sweeping
than just curtailing international fishing, it also stipulated for the first time
that U.S. fisheries would be managed for maximum benefits to society.
"No one knew exactly how many newcomers had arrived during the last
four months of 1977, but according to one report, new boats entered
the fishery at the astounding rate of about one every four days".
Industry in Trouble
Following passage of Magnuson, there was great optimism in the
fishing industry. Since the international fleets were gone, there must be
large underfished resources now available to U.S. fishermen. New,
more modern vessels were constructed, some using financing
available at low rates through existing government loan programs. The
Canadians also had extended their territorial jurisdiction 200
miles seaward, excluding U.S. vessels which had fished off the
Scotian Shelf and the southern Grand Banks for generations.
Moreover, overlapping territorial claims in the Georges Bank region
between the U.S. and Canada resulted in high-level diplomatic
negotiations. In 1979 a draft treaty on reciprocal fishing rights
was agreed to at the ministerial level. The treaty recognized
historical fisheries by the U.S. off Canada, and vice-versa.
However, with the change in administrations in 1980, and opposition
from some segments of the industry, the draft treaty was not
ratified. Ultimately, the boundary between the U.S. and Canada was
settled in the United Nations' World Court. Americans were forever barred from
fishing areas off Canada, and areas in the northern part of Georges
Bank, where so much of the haddock landings of the 1920s-1950s had
been taken. This negotiation has since precluded either side from adjusting effort on transboundary stocks in a
"If John Cabot were alive today, he would not recognize Georges
Bank. Instead of a sea swarming with majestic cod, he would find
dogfish. Instead of flounder, he would find skates. Instead of a
fishermen's dream, he would find a nightmare".
Congressman Gerry Studds 1991
Fleet effort built up quickly from 1977-1985, and has remained at
a stable and high level ever since. Quota management systems, a
hold-over from the ICNAF days were abandoned in 1982, replaced by
what proved to be ineffective controls on net mesh size, closed areas and minimum
fish sizes in landings. One by one, many of the most productive
stocks have collapsed in the wake of ever-advancing harvesting
technology, and failure of the management system to take steps necessary to
rebuild the populations. Landings tumbled, and fish prices soared,
fueled by scarce catches and increasing demand by health-conscious
consumers. Finally, environmental groups sued the federal
government, claiming that the Commerce Department didn't enforce
its own rules mandating that overfishing of resources should not be
allowed to occur. This set in motion sweeping new management plans intended
not only to control fishing effort, but also to rebuild groundfish stocks. Government financial aid has been forthcoming to buffer the
impacts of new rules on the industry, but it is likely that there will be
more calls for industry support while tough stock recovery measures are
given time to work.
"While the facts before us show no proof or presumption of any
depletion of the fisheries on the banks frequented by American
otter trawlers, it is possible that the seeds of damage already
have been sown and their fruits may appear in the future or that
the development of a wholly unregulated fishery eventually may
result in injury where none now exists".
1914 Report of the U.S.
Commissioner of Fisheries
Throughout the 20th century there several themes have
emerged from how the industry developed and how it was managed.
The industry has been in almost continuous change since 1900.
Recent calls to preserve the 'historical character' of the industry
as new rules are contemplated begs the question of legitimacy of
which historical patterns should be preserved. Throughout the
century, various gear sectors have been in conflict. At the turn of
the century it was sail vs. steam. Now, serious conflicts arise
between large trawlers, and inshore gill netters. The westward
progression of the fishing, first as the salt cod fishery abandoned
the Grand Banks, and then as the redfish fishery was excluded from
Canadian waters following extended jurisdiction is a clear trend.
The list of stocks 'written-off' and commercially extinct includes
species such as halibut, redfish, and--until recovery plans can work--haddock and yellowtail flounder.
The diversity and productivity of groundfish fishery has declined
because of the lack of concern for the species components of the
resource. Lastly, the failure of scientists, managers, industry,
and international partners to work cooperatively attests
to the complexities of maximizing economic gain while minimizing long-term
damage to the source of that gain.
The history of this fishery and its problems is in fact a parable
for man's interactions with the natural world in the 20th century.
History of the groundfishing industry of New England Part 1
Contributed by Steven A. Murawski, NEFSC (mid-1990s)