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A Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England

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historical photo New Bedford Wharf
Historical photo New Bedford Wharf


Groundfishing, the catching of fishes that swim in close proximity to the bottom, was the first colonial industry in America. During the past 400 years, changes in the methods, people and productivity of groundfishing have paralleled the technological, ethnographic and environmental conditions ashore. Now we are faced with unprecedented low stocks of groundfish species, and an industry shrinking in regional importance, struggling to support historical fishing communities such as Gloucester and New Bedford, Massachusetts. This review is intended to look back to the beginnings of the 20th century, and to follow the development of groundfishing to the current times. Many of the problems currently faced by the industry were foreseen as early as the first decade of the new century. Increasingly efficient fishing methods, competition between fleet sectors employing various gears, inability to act in harmony with international partners, and the failure to heed scientific advice sound like current themes, but in fact have been echoed repeatedly since the turn of the century. The diversity and productivity of New England fisheries was once unequalled. A continuing trend over the past century has been the overexploitation and eventual collapse of species after species. Atlantic halibut, ocean perch, Haddock and Yellowtail Flounder once fed millions of Americans.


Now even the venerable Atlantic Cod, resilient to years of overfishing, could join the ranks of species written-off as commercially extinct.

How we came to the current situation, and missed opportunities to put the fishery on a sustainable basis form the thesis of this review. Understanding the historical, scientific and human dimensions that influenced the fish, fishermen and management decisions is a necessary step to begin harmonizing the fishery with the ecosystem.


historical photo boston fish pier
Historical photos of Boston fish pier

The fishing industry of New England has, for over 400 years, been identified both economically and culturally with groundfishing. A mixture of bottom-dwelling fishes including cod, haddock,redfish and flounders constitute the groundfish resource. Once, great fleets of vessels sailed from Gloucester and Boston to the eastern- most reaches of North America -- the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Catches of salt cod supported nearly 400 schooners in each of these ports, and a multitude of shore-side businesses including salt mining, ice harvesting in fresh-water ponds, and a boat building industry that made the shipyards on the Essex River among the busiest and best known in the world.

The industrial revolution caught up with the fishing industry around the turn of the century. The introduction of the steam- powered trawler from England heralded a sea change in how groundfish were caught, and rapidly replaced the schooner fleets. More over, the community and social dynamics of fishermen was changed forever. Even then there was concern that the new technology was quite powerful, and could threaten the productivity of the stocks. Scientific investigations of the time warned that the new technology should be applied judiciously - but had little effect on fishing.

By 1930 there were clear signs that the fleet had grown too efficient in relation to the capacity of the stocks to sustain growth in landings. A new round of scientific investigation, begun in 1930 at Harvard University, showed just how powerful the new technology was. In 1930 the fishery landed 37 million haddock at Boston, with another 70-90 million baby haddock discarded dead at sea! The very small mesh size used in the nets was judged the culprit. Yet not until 1953 did the first regulations specifying the minimum mesh size for trawl nets come into force.

men sorting fish
Men sorting fish

Prior to WW II the fleet was large in size, but profitability was low. Consumption of fish in America had nose-dived as the daughters and sons of immigrants abandoned old-world traditions of fish consumption. The war years were again prosperous for the industry as fish was canned for the GIs, and protein demands and rationing necessitated a return to fish consumption. The fleet was reduced at this time, as many of the largest trawlers were requisitioned for war duty as mine sweepers. The return of these vessels from war, along with reduced demand resulted again in hard times in the industry. Development of new markets such as selling ocean perch in the midwest as a substitute for Great Lakes yellow perch sustained the offshore fleet. Many government subsidy programs, that would come back to haunt the industry decades later, were launched after the war.

The beginning of the 1960s saw the development of the gravest threat yet to the sustainability of the fishery. Ocean-going fish factories, comprising the distant water fleets 'discovered' haddock, hake and herring resources off Georges Bank. Soon fleets from the USSR were joined by those from East Germany, Poland, Spain, Japan and others. Not until the early 1970s could an international commission settle on fishing restrictions, too late to avoid the virtual collapse of most groundfish stocks.

The clamor for the U.S. to assert control over waters out to 200 miles was great. Congress enacted the Magnuson Act of 1976, taking control of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and setting up a system of regulation of the domestic industry. Fueled by great expectations and aided by subsidy programs in place since the 1950s, the U.S. began to build new, modern fishing boats. The fleet, once dominated by wooden side-trawlers, was replaced quickly with steel stern-trawlers, miniature versions of the factory trawlers used by the distant water fleets. Quota-based regulations, a hold-over from the last days of international restrictions, seemed to be in the way of the revitalized U.S. groundfish fleet. Catch quotas -- a method of directly controlling the percentage of the stock harvested each year -- were discontinued in favor of what proved to be ineffective measures to control the size of meshes in the nets, and the minimum length of fish landed.

The high water mark for the industry in the post-200 mile limit era occurred in the early 1980s, when strong year classes of cod and haddock, spawned in 1975 and 1978, became harvestable size. These resources were scooped up, this time by those who had seen same damage caused by the distant water fleets.

Resources have since declined to levels lower than those recorded during the era of the DWFs. Now the clamor for regulation comes not just from the fishermen, but from environmental groups, the general public and elected officials. Years of supporting industry growth have left the federal government vulnerable to charges that its policies helped collapse the fish stocks, and harmed the environment. Congress has begun to develop programs to help failing fishing communities through vessel buy-outs, job retraining, and subsidized health insurance for fishing families.

fishermen on dock early 1800s
Fishermen on dock in the early 1800s

Outline and Period Synopses

The history of 20th century groundfishing in New England can be divided into six time periods, based on a combination of factors including technological development, changes in species abundance, development of markets for new species, or improved marketing of existing fishes, and major changes in the regulatory regime. Some of these factors span more than one time period (e.g. shift from cod to haddock as the primary target species), whereas others were single events, so dominating the scene that they are clearly demarcate new eras (e.g. passage of the Magnuson 200-mile limit law in 1976). The intent of these chapters is to describe and illustrate the periods from three separate perspectives: the industry (e.g. people and commerce), the fishes (biology), and management institutions (political and institutional).

Period 1. Sail to Steam (1900-1920)

RV Grampus
RV Grampus

"...there was no sound except the splash of the sinkers overside, the flapping of the cod, and the whack of muckles as the men stunned them. It was wonderful fishing".

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous

Prior to the introduction of steam trawling in 1906, groundfish were caught exclusively with baited lines, fished from schooners and their dories. The novel 'Captains Courageous' by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1897, accurately describes the lives of the 'salt bankers', as they sailed from Gloucester, Massachusetts to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in search of cod. Owing to the length of their journeys, and the lack of refrigeration and freezing, most of the cod catch was salted at sea. The salt cod fishery was in every respect an industry. Salt was imported from as far away as Sicily and England. The fish were marketed world- wide, and particularly in countries such as Surinam, who had earlier participated in the 'triangle trade' of slaves-rum-salt fish. The change from schooners to trawling was the death-knell for the traditional ways. At the time there was considerable debate as to the social and environmental consequences in the shift of technology. Ultimately, there were no explicit management decisions made, and the fleet types engaged in fierce competition. This chapter introduces the end of the schooner era, the switch to trawling by steam-powered vessels, and the consequences of the industrial revolution, both ashore and at sea, to the fishery and the fish.

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.

Contributed by Steven A. Murawski, NEFSC (mid-1990s)

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