« NEFSC History Home

A Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England

See this page on our new site »

Part 2

historical photo boston fish pier
Historical photo of the Boston fish pier

Period 2. Cod to Haddock (1920-1930)

"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 follow?"

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.

Period 3. Fishing Troubles (1930-1960)

fisherman holding cod
Fisherman holding cod

"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".

William Herrington
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 fishery.

Period 4. Distant Water Fleets (DWFs) (1960-1976)

soviet factory ship with tenders
Soviet factory ship with tenders

"...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".

Distant Water
William Warner

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.

Period 5. The 2nd Industrial Revolution (1977-1984)

fishing fleet at dock
Fishing fleet at dock

"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
Margret Dewar

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 complementary way.

Period 6. Too Many Fishermen... Chasing too Few Fish (1985-1995)

net spilling dogfish catch
Net spilling dogfish catch

"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.

Period 7. Lessons From Fish Schools

portland harbor scene
Portland Harbor

"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)

home button