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Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Fishing in the USA - Commercial fishing in the Northeast: a decade of change

While this article from Nils Stope refers to the fishing industry across the pond on the east coast of the USA, there are a number of principles concerning the regulation of fish stocks and other measure with which to draw parallels with our the industry here - along with some of the dire consequences of 'well intentioned' foisheries management introduced as a direct result of NGO interference and/or influence - lobbying.

It’s obvious if you spend any time around the docks or shop regularly at a decent fish market that there have been dramatic changes in the domestic commercial fishing industry in the country and in the Northeast over the last ten years.

At the national level

The following chart on tilapia imports from 2003 (from the USDA) says most of what needs to be said. For reference I have also included our average annual per capita consumption of seafood. In the last decade the US population has in-creased by approximately 8%, per capita seafood consumption has decreased by 8%, and our seafood imports have increased 70%. We are currently importing over 90% of the seafood we consume.

But on the plus side the inflation corrected value of US seafood landings after a protracted decline starting in the late 70s has been increasing fairly steadily since 2002.

Closer to home

The inflation adjusted value of New England seafood landings in 2011 (the latest year for which commercial data were available) was the second highest since 1950. While good news to some fishermen, over half of that value was due to extraordinarily high production in just two fisheries.

In 2002, Northeast (from New Jersey to Maine) sea scallop landings were worth $143 million in inflation adjusted dollars. In 2011 they were worth $495 million. Lobster landings in the Northeast were worth $293 million in 2002 and $423 million in 2011. Minus these two fisheries, New England landings are about as low as they have ever been and are about to go lower. Without sea scallops, Mid-Atlantic landings are at their lowest point since 1950 (for more on this see

What happened?

A New England Fisheries Management Council press release issued on June 7, 2001stated “year 2000 calculations show that estimated biomass levels for 11 important groundfish stocks, collectively, have increased almost 2-1/2 times since 1994.” The release went on about this good news, rightfully giving credit for it to the fishermen for their sacrifices and their demands for better science.

Referring to that release in the FishNet piece Of blood and turnips (at /netusa19.htm), I wrote in 2002 “unfortunately this state of affairs…. has been anything but that (good news) to the ‘conservationists’…. they were successful in having language included in the Sustainable Fisheries Act that removed much needed flexibility from a fisheries management system that was struggling to maintain the economic viability of the fishing industry at the same time that it was struggling to rebuild and maintain the sustainability of the fish stocks it was managing. Based on the fruits of their successful - and exceedingly well-funded - lobbying efforts, a group of these same not-for-profits have now brought suit in Federal court to needlessly accelerate the groundfish rebuilding process by forcing unreasonable adherence to these rigid provisions of the Act.”

Their suit, from their “take care of fish, not fishermen” perspective, was successful and they’ve won similar suits subsequently. In a nutshell, federal policy now demands that if a stock of fish isn’t at a certain population level by a certain time, stringent fishing restrictions must be put in place until it reaches some arbitrary point regardless of its effect on fishermen, their businesses and their communities.

Judging by the results, most of the fish and most of the fishermen lost. The groundfish fleet is a shadow of what it was, economic chaos has become a way of life for fishing families and communities, and in place of cod and haddock and flounder, imported tilapia, basa and swai have made it into restaurants up and down the coast.

It’s obvious that the “blame it all on fishing” management regime, and its corollary “cut back fishing enough and the fish will come back” now in force aren’t doing much for the fish or the fishermen, and considering the radical changes that are now taking place in the marine environment, it’s completely understandable why they aren’t.
Ocean waters are warming so much that some local fish stocks and their prey are relocating. Exacerbating this is a population explosion of the notoriously voracious spiny dogfish. There are over half a billion tons of them out there, eating just about everything that is smaller and slower than they are. This includes the more valuable species that fishermen target and much of what those species feed.

It’s estimated that spiny dogfish consume six times their body weight each year. That’s an annual three billion tons of fish and invertebrates turned into dogfish food. For perspective, in 2011 the total weight of the combined commercial catch of finfish and shellfish in the Virginia to Maine was 375 million pounds, just over a tenth of what it takes to keep all of those dogfish going.

In 1992 Steve Murawski, retired NMFS Director of Scientific Programs and Chief Science Advisor, wrote "given the current high abundance of skates and dogfish, it may not be possible to increase gadoid (cod and haddock) and flounder abundance without `extracting' some of the current standing stock." The spiny dogfish biomass was at about the same level then as it is today.

Why so many dogfish? Because the Magnuson Act demands that fish populations be at the maximum sustainable harvest (msy) level. Rationality seems to demand otherwise.

Predation by seals, while harder to get a handle on, is also huge. Current estimates have 15,000 seals in the waters off Cape Cod, and like spiny dogfish their feeding preferences often directly or indirectly conflict with fishermen’s catching preferences.

The way it’s playing out, without the original flexibility being put back into the Magnuson Act we’re looking at ever declining catches by fewer and fewer fishermen fishing under increasingly stringent restrictions, and these restrictions will continue to be as ineffectual – and as economically damaging - as they have been in the last decade. Arbitrary stock rebuilding schedules and counterintuitive requirements that all fisheries be at maximum sustainable levels regardless of the impacts on more valuable fisheries will continue to rule the day and continue to decimate fishing communities.

And this gets us to one of the most obvious, dramatic and controversial changes in the Northeastern commercial fishing industry. Several years ago the New England groundfish fishery – one of our nation’s oldest and most important – was forced into a form of catch-shares management called sectors. Catch shares/sector management in essence turns fishery resources into private property, whereby the government grants historic participants in a fishery a proportion of each year’s harvest based on their prior performance in that fishery. The government determines how much allocation each permit holder in the fishery is awarded. The allocations, once granted, can be bought, sold, or leased to others.

The allocations of particular species were initially low, and with subsequent cuts are now even lower. Many fishermen couldn’t/can’t afford to keep on fishing, given these abysmally low allocations and the lack of alternative fisheries they are able to participate in,* so are either selling or leasing what quota they were granted to larger operators. This is leading to the consolidation of fishing power among fewer and fewer vessels and fewer and fewer ports. Of course this is a manager’s dream, with fewer fishermen and fewer boats to manage and with the added bonus of passing much of the monitoring and enforcement responsibility and costs to the fishermen, but a nightmare to too many fishermen and the death knell of too many smaller ports.

Where do we go from here? If we want to bring our vibrant fishing communities back, we have to fix the Magnuson Act and we have to return to a federal fisheries management policy that values the fishermen as much as the fish. This might be anathema to the radical environmentalists who are now calling the shots but it’s necessary if we want to keep the fleet diversity that has characterized the Northeast fisheries for generations.

Note: for a fuller exploration of many of the topics addressed above see

*In 2010 the estimated biomass of spiny dogfish, Acadian redfish and haddock was over a million metric tons. These are catchable and sellable species, given some gear and market development. If only 20% of that biomass, 200 thousand metric tons, was harvested annually and the fish returned twenty cents per pound to the fishermen, it would be worth $90 million at the dock. In 2010 the total weight of finfish landed in New England was approximately 200 thousand metric tons (see ).

You can dowload a pdf version here.

Commercial fishing in the Northeast: a decade of change 
Nils E. Stolpe Commercial fishing in the Northeast: a decade of change 
FishNet USA/October 1, 2013