Northeast groundfish stocks were managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act (MSA) beginning with the adoption of a groundfish plan for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder in 1977. This plan relied on hard quotas, called total allowable catches (TACs), and proved unworkable. The quota system was rejected in 1982 with the adoption of the Interim Groundfish Plan, which relied on minimum fish sizes and gear restrictions to control fishing mortality. The Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP) was then implemented in 1986.

In response to declining groundfish stocks, the FMP has been modified through numerous amendments and framework measures, each of which placed additional restrictions on fishing. During most of the 1980s and early 1990s, groundfish harvests were regulated by indirect controls on fishing mortality such as mesh and minimum fish size restrictions and some area closures. However, legal action from environmental groups stimulated demands for stronger action to eliminate overfishing and restore depleted stocks of cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder. Amendment 5 to the FMP, implemented in 1994, marked the beginning of an effort reduction program to address the MSA requirements to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. The amendment established a days-at-sea (DAS) program to limit the number of fishing days each vessel was allowed to fish, increased mesh size requirements, expanded areas closed to groundfish fishing, and imposed a moratorium on new entrants with the goal of reducing the fishing effort on cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder stocks by 50% over five years. Amendment 7 (1996) broadened regulations enacted under Amendment 5 and accelerated the schedule of the DAS reduction program from 5 years to 3 years. A series of framework adjustments of Amendment 7 expanded the use of closed areas in the Gulf of Maine area and implemented additional measures to reduce or maintain fishing mortality rates of critical stocks.

A 2001 lawsuit filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) because it failed to create rebuilding plans consistent with new overfishing definitions created in Amendment 9 (1998) led to further reductions in effort, additional closed areas and other fishing restrictions. Negotiations among the parties to the lawsuit also led to development of Amendment 13 (2004), which implemented a wide suite of measures including formal rebuilding plans for all regulated groundfish stocks, a DAS purchase and leasing program that allowed vessel owners to consolidate DAS from two or more vessels onto one and new limited access permit categories. Framework 42 (2007) of Amendment 13 reduced DAS and established differential DAS counting areas.

Despite the range of management measures implemented, many depleted fish stocks in the Northeast groundfish fishery failed to show signs of recovery. It is likely that measures were ineffective for a variety of reasons, including the failure of the effort control measures to prevent fishing mortality from exceeding overfishing thresholds, a substantial level of illegal and unreported fishing, and shifting environmental conditions that hampered the rebuilding of overfished stocks.

Given the lack of success of existing measures, by the late 2000s, fishery managers and members of the fishing industry were considering entirely new ways of managing the fishery, including ‘‘sector based management’’ which involved allocations of groundfish stocks to what are essentially fishermen cooperatives. Amendment 13 had specified a process for the formation of sectors within the Northeast groundfish fishery. The amendment approved a sector for Georges Bank cod hook fishermen and authorized NMFS to approve a legally binding operations plan for the sector and to allocate a percentage of the total allowable catch of Georges Bank cod to the sector based on the catch history of its members.

The sector based approach was expanded by Amendment 16, which was implemented through final rule on April 9, 2010. Amendment 16 also set Annual Catch Limits in compliance with 2006 revisions to the MSA. The first day of fishing under the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program was May 1, 2010.

In 2009, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center initiated a process to identify and define socio-economic performance measures for Northeast Region fisheries, including the Northeast groundfish fishery. Data collection efforts include vessel owner and crew surveys and annual cost survey. Using the set of indicators developed by this performance measure initiative and the data collected thus far, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center has reported first and second year results for the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program.

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