New England needs finer-scale area management in the groundfish fishery because, for decades, we have watched formerly abundant fishing grounds collapse all along our coastal shelf. The same pattern is repeated over and over again – fishery managers set catch limits for the waters off the entire stretch of coastline from far eastern Maine to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Fishermen respond in a rational way, and focus fishing effort in the areas of greatest abundance. Catches diminish over time as the local fish populations are wiped out, and the fleet moves to the next hot spot. Over time, fishermen who depend on their local fishing grounds for a living are left stranded without any fish, while the larger, more-mobile vessels find more abundant fishing elsewhere. This “pulse fishing” has resulted in serial depletion of discrete groundfish populations all along New England’s coastline.
Recent science, much of it conducted by Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries co-founder Ted Ames, shows that there is no single population of cod and other groundfish in the Gulf of Maine, rather there are distinct sub-populations that return to a very specific place to spawn, year after year, in much the same way that salmon return to their natal rivers to spawn. A codfish that travels many miles in search of food during its lifetime, will return to within 100 meters to spawn each year. The fish larvae that this codfish produces may get drawn away by currents, but will return to where they hatched due to natal homing. However, when fishermen from across the Gulf of Maine all descend on these small pulses of fish, heavy fishing pressure depletes the local fish populations.
Managing at the scale of a discrete population is the only way to protect fish populations from being wiped out. Depletion may last for decades or longer. Canadian fishery managers declared fishing moratoria beginning over 20 years ago on three quarters of the Northwest Atlantic’s 12 cod stocks after fish landings there dropped by 97 percent. Most of these stocks still have not recovered. Thankfully, on the Eastern Scotian Shelf, the abundance of some stocks is beginning to approach pre-collapse levels. Since the Eastern Maine Coastal Shelf is part of the same ecosystem production unit (EPU) as Canada’s Eastern Scotian Shelf, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries believes that fish will recover given the right conditions, and under appropriately scaled area management.
Want to learn more? Click here to check out our panel discussion, “Secret Lives of Fish” at the 2014 Maine Fishermen’s Forum.