History of the Fishery

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The Northeast groundfish industry has been both culturally and economically important for more than 400 years. It is New England’s oldest industry and was for many years its most important one.

Initially, the commercial groundfish fishery focused primarily on cod. The salt cod industry supported a hook and line fishery that included hundreds of sailing vessels. From 1900 to 1930, the fleet transitioned to steam powered trawlers and increasingly targeted haddock for delivery to the fresh fillet market. The introduction of powered vessels, together with the adoption of otter trawls, allowed increased catches with reduced fishing effort. By the 1930s, with the transition to diesel-powered trawlers, the groundfish fleet had grown too efficient, and landings and discards far surpassed a sustainable level for the resource. Landings of haddock plummeted after peaking at over 100,000 mt in the late 1920s. Small mesh sizes were blamed for the excessive catches, but the first regulations on minimum mesh sizes were not implemented for another 20 years.

Groundfish landings decreased during World War II due to fleet requisitions for the war, but profitability increased as a result of protein demands for military personnel. During the post-war period the quantity and value of landings showed a steady decline due to competition from imports of foreign groundfish products and low abundance of some groundfish stocks. However, landings again increased in the 1960s with added effort by foreign distant water factory trawlers and the discovery of resources off Georges Bank. Haddock landings reached a record-high of over 154,000 mt in 1965 but declined rapidly thereafter. By 1974, indices of abundance for many groundfish species had dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded.

Following enactment of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the Act would later be known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)) in 1976 and exclusion of foreign fleets, federal government policies and programs encouraged U.S. fishermen to engage in the Northeast groundfish fishery, and the number of domestic vessels in the Northeast groundfish trawl fleet doubled between 1976 and 1984. Moreover, the harvesting capability of the fleet expanded as wooden side-trawlers were replaced by steel stern-trawlers equipped with more modern technology for locating, catching, and handling fish. With this rapid increase in fishing effort and advances in fishing technology came a spike in landings. However, many of the most productive stocks soon collapsed due to the failure of the management system to take steps necessary to rebuild the populations. In 1986, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) implemented the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP).

By the early 1990s, groundfish exploitation rates were at their highest, and stock biomass reached record lows. The drastic and persistent decline in the condition of many key stocks prompted the NEFMC to strengthen stock rebuilding efforts. Attempts to end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks resulted in a frequently changing and complicated management regime. Regulations employed a combination of gear restrictions, trip limits, days-at-sea restrictions, fishing area closures, and other rules. As combined measures failed to rein in overfishing, the number of days fishermen were allowed to fish dropped each succeeding year until they were a fraction of what they had been. By 2009, most fishermen had 40 or fewer days of fishing per year. While some stocks were overfished, others were severely underfished.

Congress attempted to support failing fishing communities through a variety of measures. In 1995, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared a fishery resource disaster in the Northeast groundfish fishery, prompting federal disaster relief assistance of $90 million. Sixty-five million dollars of this total were used to fund a variety of services, such as technical assistance and loan programs, retraining programs, a health insurance program and fishing family assistance centers. The remaining funds were used in vessel and permit buyback programs. In 1996, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) set up a pilot buyback of groundfish vessels; the program was expanded in 1998, and 79 boats were removed from the Northeast groundfish fleet. A permit buyback program in 2001 removed 245 permits, mostly from the fleet’s smaller boats; the boats themselves were not surrendered.

In 2007, an omnibus spending bill included $13.4 million in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget for the Massachusetts multispecies fishery. The funding was provided to lessen the economic impacts associated with New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Framework 42 of Amendment 13 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which reduced days-at-sea (DAS) and implemented differential DAS counting areas. In 2012, the Secretary of Commerce declared a commercial fishery failure in the Northeast groundfish fishery for the 2013 fishing season based on the expectation that further cuts to catch limits may be necessary.

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