Groundfish Science and Fishing Communities

Captain Jason Joyce weighing fishMaine Center for Coastal Fisheries recognizes that rebuilding the cod, haddock, and other groundfish stock is key to the future of Maine fishing communities, which are currently more than 90% dependent on lobster.

An example of the groundfish problem is the depletion of Stellwagen Bank in the Western Gulf of Maine. Between 2008 and 2012, over 50 % of the Gulf of Maine cod stock was caught in just one percent of the area. With such focused fishing effort, the relative abundance of fish in this area has been so greatly diminished that groundfish quotas were cut by 70% in 2013.

The current basis for allocating quota – how much each species fishermen can catch – rests on stock assessments for large bodies of water, like the Gulf of Maine. Yet new research, by many scientists including Ted Ames, reveals that there are many sub-populations of groundfish, each distinct to particular bays and reefs, with unique migration corridors. This could explain why groundfish can be present in certain parts of the Gulf of Maine and virtually extinct in others.

Setting catch limits based on large regional scale sampling overlooks localized depletion, and has driven fishermen to do the rational thing – they fish aggressively where the fish are. In so doing, they have unwittingly taken out the remaining productive sub-populations one by one, even though they were abiding by catch limits.

The federal system needs a feasible way to assess the health of these finer scale fish populations in order to produce fishing rules that provide for sustainable harvest levels for each species in what we now understand to be a stunningly complex and changing ocean.

One thing that is currently missing in our fisheries management system is a way to get good, local observations about conditions into the larger-scale federal scientific process in a timely and cost-effective way. This is where coastal fishermen enter the picture.

In New England many fishermen operate smaller boats close to shore where most fish species reproduce. Coastal fishermen have deep knowledge of fish behavior that occurs there. It is a place that needs good monitoring and rules that protect the area’s productivity.

Depletion may last for decades or longer. Canadian fishery managers declared fishing moratoria beginning over 20 years ago on most of the Northwest Atlantic’s 12 cod stocks after fish landings there dropped by 97 percent. Most of these stocks still have not recovered. However, on the Eastern Scotian Shelf, some stocks are 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, we believe that fish will recover here given the right conditions, and under appropriately-scaled area management.