It’s Déjà vu for New England’s Fishing Fleet

Note: This is a guest post from Peter Baker and Lee Crockett.

As an editorial in the Boston Globe observed, things did not look good for the coming fishing season. Fishermen were “returning from three or four days’ hauling on Georges Bank with near-empty holds.” And while other regions of the country were successfully managing their fisheries, “New England’s council has been unable to do so.”

The year was 1993.

Twenty years later, the sense of déjà vu is unshakeable. A new season brings a troubling scenario of depleted fish populations and deficient management. Fourteen of the region’s 20 groundfish — or bottom dwelling — species are currently overexploited. Cod stocks are at the lowest levels ever recorded. New England’s best captains could not find enough cod in the past year to meet more than a third of their allotted quota on Georges Bank. It is, officially, an economic disaster, as the U.S. Department of Commerce declared last fall.

In short, here we are, with our storied fishing grounds in even worse shape than they were two decades ago.

The tools to rein in overfishing and rebuild healthy populations have been there all along — in the form of science-based catch limits required by the nation’s top fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act. For much of the country, the law has worked: over the past 11 years, rebuilding plans have restored 32 previously severely depleted fisheries.

Yet New England stands apart as a place where treasured species are chronically subjected to overfishing. The waste from accidental catch is not adequately controlled, or even monitored. And important protections for marine habitat could soon be dismantled.

As in 1993, the nation’s top fishing law is again due for reauthorization by Congress. Last month, leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors gathered in Washington, D.C. for a special summit to discuss the future of our nation’s fisheries and how the law should change to meet current challenges. Some regional critics pointed to the ongoing difficulties in New England as an excuse to weaken the law’s requirements to set strong catch limits and rebuild depleted species.

The core problems are not due to the national law, though. They are closer to home. New England’s fishery management council has repeatedly made risky and shortsighted decisions that keep fishing pressure too high and the chances of species recovery too low.

The pressing need for change is in the way New Englanders implement the law. But the law itself can also be improved. Even during the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Congress and fishery managers realized that while stopping overfishing was the first priority, we should also attend to issues that affect the ocean itself. Today, our efforts also need to focus on protecting habitat, reducing the take of non-target species, and ensuring that enough smaller fish remain in the ocean for the larger species to eat.

With the current push for reauthorization of the law, policymakers have the opportunity to accomplish even more. Rather than considering single species as if they existed in a vacuum, this ecosystem-based approach would take into account the overall health of the marine food web — for instance, how predators depend on healthy populations of prey — and build more resilient fish populations. That could be just what New England needs to turn the corner from past damage and face new challenges, including warmer waters, which will further stress many species.

As the Globe’s editorial page put it in 1993, “the New England fishing industry must now be saved again — from itself, if necessary.”


Peter Baker directs the Northeast fisheries program for The Pew Charitable Trusts. Lee Crockett directs Pew’s U.S. Oceans campaigns. Both are avid, lifelong anglers.


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

David B.
David B4 years ago

why do people seem surprised at this happening? if your too stupid to learn then you get what you deserve.too bad so sad. all they had to do is look north and see what happened to the cod fish industry in eastern Canada. when the first explorers arrived here the amount of cod could stop the ships the schools were so less than 300 years the cod were gone due to extreme over fishing and extremely poor management.sorry you gonna dance you pay the sympathy here ,'cept maybe for the cod.

Annie S.
Annie Sousa4 years ago

Sorry, did not realise that my rant was so long ......

When there is no longer any fish in the oceans and our oceans are dying (which at the rate we are going, won’t be long), you should lay the blame firmly on the shoulders of the world's fishermen and the governing bodies of the fishing industry. The fishermen because they are greedy, ignorant idiots. The governing bodies because they have continuously ignored the advice of scientists who have recommended year over year, for the sake of the health of the world’s oceans and for the sake of being able to feed the exploding world population into the future, the need to drastically cut quotas. These governing bodies don’t adhere to this advice, because they don’t have the testicular fortitude to make fishermen adhere to a fish quota that may, just may, save our oceans for the rest the world population.

Annie S.
Annie Sousa4 years ago

According to National Geographic, only 10% of all large fish—both open ocean species including tuna, swordfish, marlin and the large groundfish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder—are left in the sea, according to research issue of the scientific journal Nature.

In 58 years???? How the hell can this be allowed to happen???? Because fishermen all over the world are completely incapable of policing themselves. They believe that the ocean belongs to them. They are the most selfish bunch of entitled, ocean raping idiots that walk this planet. All they care about is putting money in their OWN pockets. They defy any policy imposed upon them to reduce their catch. They continuously break the laws and overfish. Fishermen use the most sophisticated equipment to locate and catch fish and they don’t give a fiddler's fart to the kind of ecological damage they are doing. You would think that the New England fishing community or the North Sea fishermen would have learnt a lesson over cod, but of course not. They raped the ocean of one species and instead of learning from their mistakes, they are raping the ocean for other species. All this has happened, because greedy, corrupt , ignorant and cowardly governing bodies have allowed them to get away with it and in many cases, encouraged it.

When there is no longer any fish in the oceans and our oceans are dying (which at the rate we are going, won’t be long), you should lay the blame firmly on the s

Kelvin L.
Kelvin L.4 years ago

Fi T. There are some ways it can, but unfortunately, it is ridiculously hard to enforce without putting a government agent on each boat. It is really much more complicated than that, but our best bet is to stay educated on where your food comes from, and how it affects the environment. From there we can educate others.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Can the catching be more effective without affecting the whole marine ecosystem?

John chapman
John chapman4 years ago

The by catch kill is a terrible waste.

Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert4 years ago

@Michelle S. The "deja vu all over again" comes from the classic Yogi Berra quote.

Honestly, it's time to get some more conservative scientists setting the annual limits and stationing a joint US/Canadian naval fleet to guard the fishing grounds from foreign fishing in the Grand Banks.

Sheila D.
GGmaSAway D4 years ago

Want to make a bet this same problem will be affecting this same area? They don't seem to be learning from their own mistakes.

Ken W.
Ken W4 years ago