Georges Bank is an underwater plateau which is located around sixty miles off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia. Once famed for the huge quantities of fish it held, Georges Bank has been overfished for much of the twentieth century, and there has been a significant decline in both the quantity of fish and the number of species found in the area. Recent years have seen the US government introduce policies to allow Georges Bank to recover, but this has met with mixed success and led to disputes between commercial fishermen and conservation groups over how much fishing should be allowed in the area as attempts are made to rebuild stocks.
Geographic Features of Georges Bank
Georges Bank itself is around 150 miles long by seventy-five miles across. As recently as 12,000 years ago Georges Bank was still part of the American mainland, but as the last Ice Age ended and sea levels rose the area first became an island, and then became completely submerged. This means that Georges Bank is relatively shallow – the majority is under one hundred metres deep – so sunlight can reach much of the seabed, allowing marine vegetation to grow rapidly. Furthermore, like the nearby Grand Banks, the cold, northerly Labrador Current mixes with the warm Gulf Stream coming from the south at Georges Bank (1).
This creates climactic conditions which are unique to the area and stirs up the seabed and releases nitrates which allow krill and zooplankton to exist in vast numbers (1). This combination of rich vegetation and high levels of planktonic sea creatures bring species such as herring and other small fish species which come to Georges Bank to seek shelter in the vegetation and feed on the plankton. In turn, these fish attract larger species which come to prey on them. In pre-industrial fishing times Georges Bank was home to cod, hake, haddock, redfish, herring, halibut and mackerel, as well as flatfish species such as American plaice and yellowtail flounder (2). Sharks, whales, swordfish and tuna were also found across Georges Bank and the surrounding areas, along with as huge numbers of marine birds, as well as scallops and other commercially valuable shellfish (2).
Early Fishing on Georges Bank
Georges Bank may have attracted fishermen for over one thousand years with Basque vessels fishing the bank as long ago as the year 1000 and preserving their catches of cod in salt for the long journey back to Europe. Hundreds of years later American and Canadian fishermen began fishing Georges Bank using oar and sail-powered boats. The Gloucester schooner, a fast sail-powered vessel which would act as a mothership for smaller fishing boats known as dories, was developed in the 1700s and used to fish Georges Bank until the early years of the twentieth century (1). Limited by sail-power and the fact that fish were caught on hook and line, rather than trawl nets, Georges Bank was fished within sustainable limits and retained the productivity for which it became famous. Indeed, the towns of Gloucester in Massachusetts and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia were founded and grew due to the commerce and employment which was provided by fishing on Georges Bank.
Industrialised Fishing and Increasing Catches
In a story which is depressingly familiar to that of the Grand Banks, overfishing began in the early decades of the twentieth century when sail-powered boats began to be replaced by steam-powered vessels. While some traditional fishermen continued to use schooners, it soon became clear that the significantly higher catches and ability to fish in both windless conditions and rough seas meant that investment in a steam trawler soon paid for itself. Before long the schooners which had used hooks and lines to fish Georges Bank sustainably for hundreds of years had almost completely been replaced by steam-powered trawlers.
In the book The Unnatural History of the Sea, Professor Callum Roberts describes the incredible catches that could be made from Georges Bank once steam-power become the dominant form of commercial fishing. In 1929, 120,000 tons of haddock were caught from Georges Bank by three hundred trawlers working in the area (2). Small mesh trawl nets were used to indiscriminately scoop up fish of all sizes, and it was estimated that two juvenile haddock were killed for every haddock of marketable size which was caught. An early sign that Georges Bank could be overfished came in 1934 when haddock catches crashed to 28,000 tons, although they rebounded to 50,000 tons and stabilised at this level until the 1960s (2).
The power of steam trawlers would be eclipsed first by even more efficient diesel-powered vessels, and then by factory trawlers which started to come to Georges Bank in the early 1960s. These vessels were truly massive and had the ability to catch hundreds of tons of fish a day and many could process and freeze catches on board and stay at sea for weeks at a time. Such vessels were also equipped with electronic navigational aids and fish-finding technology which meant they could catch fish in numbers which would have been incomprehensible to the schooner fishermen who fished Georges Bank just over half a century earlier.
At this time the US and Canadian governments only had the legal right to control their waters within three miles of their coastline. This meant that the factory vessels which fished Georges Bank were not American or Canadian but instead came from around the world. Factory vessels from Britain, West Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Japan and the Soviet Union fished Georges Bank, as well as the Grand Banks. In addition to the trawlers, scallop dredgers also intensively worked Georges Bank. This type of fishing sees heavy metal dredge cages dragged over the seabed to gather scallops and causes immense damage to the marine environment.
Catches from Georges Bank reached their peak in the mid-1960s. In 1965 the Soviet catch alone from North American waters was 872,000 tons, with Spain, France and Portugal catching a further 600,000 tons (2). By the mid-1970s European vessels were taking an estimated two million tons of fish from American and Canadian waters each year (2).
Domestic Overfishing and Stock Collapse
This level of intensive fishing by foreign boats continued until 1976 when the USA and Canada passed the Magnuson Fishery Conservation Act. This extended the limit that the two nations controlled to 200 nautical miles from their coastline (3) and came into force in 1977. This meant the foreign trawlers were expelled from Georges Bank and the USA and Canada took shared control of the area for themselves. The events which followed mirror those of the Grand Banks closely. Instead of using their new rights to control the fishing on Georges Bank to protect stocks and fish the area sustainably, the USA and Canada instead expanded their Georges Bank fishing fleets dramatically. Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New England trawl fleet increased from 825 boats to 1,400 (2), with fishermen incentivised by low-interest loans to upgrade their vessels and buy new boats (1). The Canadian fishing industry also underwent significant expansion, with the number of people employed as fishermen or in related fish processing or packaging industries expanding from 14,000 to 33,000 in the same timescale (2). As Callum Roberts states “domestic overfishing replaced foreign overfishing” (2).
In the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky writes that the Magnuson Act was supposed to set up a regulatory system to protect fish stocks, but it was instead dominated by the commercial fishing industry which had little incentive to conserve fish stocks (1). Commercial fishing continued at unsustainable levels, providing the fishermen of New England and parts of Canada with a financial windfall which proved to be short-lived as catches began to decline very quickly. Combined landings of cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder fell from 100,000 tons at the start of the 1980s to 40,000 tons by 1989, and small shark and ray species which were of low value began to dominate catches as the commercially important species became increasingly scarce (3). In the 1990s action was finally taken to halt overfishing after the US National Marine Fisheries Service found in 1994 that the fleet which fished Georges Bank was twice as large as fish stocks could withstand and cod stocks had fallen to 40 per cent of the levels they were at just four years previously (4).
Plans were made to only take 15 per cent of the total stock every year by restricting trawlers which targeted cod and other bottom-dwelling fish to 139 days of fishing per year. It soon became apparent that catches were still too high and the number of days at sea was cut to eighty-eight (2). Mark Kurlansky writes that it was impossible for fishermen to run a profitable bottom-trawling vessel if it has to sit idle for 277 days a year (2), leading to bitter complaints from the commercial fishing industry. By October of 1994 scientists stated that catches of the principal commercial species would have to be reduced to “practically zero” to see any form of meaningful recovery (4). In December 1994, 3,700 square miles (9600 sq km) of Georges Bank was closed to fishing, with strict quotas enforced in the areas where fishing was still permitted (4). This area was later increased to 6,500 square miles (17,000 sq km) and only pots, traps, longlines and other forms of fishing which did not affect the seabed were permitted.
Faced with these restrictions many fishermen turned to the government to ask for further financial assistance – this time for help to convert their seabed-trawling boats to mid-water trawlers in order to catch the fish species which were still present across Georges Bank. Others caught the low-value species which had previously been ignored or treated as pest species and discarded. Many of these species, especially the small shark species such as dogfish and rays had exploded in number across Georges Bank due to the lack of their natural predators such as cod and haddock. Kurlansky writes:
“The fishermen simply turned towards the available food source. In the 1960s skate was sold to lobster fishermen as bait for one dollar a bushel, herring was cheap bait for longlines and dogfish were the curse of gillnetters … by the 1990s herring, skate and dogfish were all target species” (2).
A Slow Recovery and Further Protections
The restrictions and limitations on commercial fishing on Georges Bank have been controversial and painful for commercial fishermen, with some launching legal action to try to regain the right to trawl in the areas where access has been closed off (5). However, it does appear that a slow recovery is taking place. Callum Roberts writes that the ban on bottom trawling and dredging has led to positive signs:
“Groundfish populations [on the Georges Bank] have also begun to respond to protection. Haddock and yellowtail flounder have mounted a strong recovery. Cod populations are much depleted, but recent data suggests a slight improvement. Fish habitats inside the closed areas are also changing, with an increase in abundance of large invertebrates and plants living on top of the seabed. Progress is slow. Reversing nearly a century of trawling damage cannot be achieved with a decade of protection, but these early signs are promising.”
In 2016 US President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 9496 which used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument on the edge of Georges Bank. This would be the first US marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean and would protect just under 5,000 square miles (12,000 sq km) of ocean, including parts of the Georges Bank, and ban commercial fishing from taking place in the newly designated area (although crab and lobster fishing would be allowed to be phased out over a seven-year period). Commercial fishermen’s organisations from both the US and Canada launched legal action to try to prevent the national monument from being established, claiming that the 1906 act only allowed the national monuments to be designated on land and not in the sea (6). This was not successful, and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals dismissed all of the fishermen’s arguments (6).
When Donald Trump became US president in January 2017 he signed Proclamation 10049 which weakened much of the environmental legislation brought in by Barack Obama and permitted commercial fishing to once again take place across Georges Bank. When Joe Biden came into power in 2021 he signed an executive order which reviewed many Trump-era policies related to the environment and climate change (7). In late 2021 the original Obama-era protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument which banned commercial fishing were restored (7).
The Future of Georges Bank
The sad story of Georges Bank closely reflects that of the Grand Banks. Both had plentiful fish stocks due to their geographic location at the confluence of the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current. These stocks were fished sustainably by sail-powered vessels until advancing technology, first in the form of steam trawlers and then diesel-powered factory trawlers, saw stocks severely overfished. The USA then regained control of the Georges Bank, and Canada control of the Grand Banks, and the foreign factory vessels were expelled. But instead of using this as an opportunity to rebuild stocks and fish the area sustainably (and profitably) overfishing continued until fish stocks inevitably collapsed.
A key difference is, unlike the Grand Banks, there does appear to have been something of a recovery of fish stocks across Georges Bank when compared to the Grand Banks. However, a significant proportion of Georges Bank has had to be closed to commercial fishermen to see even this modest improvement – around 25 per cent of Georges Bank has been closed to seabed trawling and 40 per cent to scallop dredging (2). This level of closure has infuriated much of the region’s commercial fishing industry, with legal action being launched and prominent campaigns taking place to allow more commercial fishing to take place. The political battle to designate the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is an example of how difficult it is to introduce new legislation that will protect the marine environment, even if it will mean increased fish stocks in the long term.
Just like the Grand Banks, the plight of Georges Bank can be seen as an example of how difficult it is to recover from the impact of intensive overfishing and illustrates just how difficult and painful it is to restore a once-thriving marine ecosystem once it has been reduced down to a fraction of its previous abundance by overfishing.
1. Kurlansky, M. (1997), Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Vintage.
2. Roberts, C. (2007), The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing, Gaia.
3. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, accessed on June 8, 2022.
4. Cushman, J. Commercial Fishing Halt is Urged for Georges Bank, New York Times, 27th October 1994.
5. Irons, E. Coakley Files Lawsuit Over Fishing Cuts, Boston Globe, 30th May 2013.
6. NationalFisherman.com – Fishermen Consider Next Move After Court Upholds Atlantic National Monument, accessed on June 10, 2022.
7. Whitehouse.gov – A Proclamation on Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, accessed on June 11, 2022.