Decline of the Georges Bank Fishery

The Georges Bank is a shoal (an elevated area of the seabed) off the coast of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. Once famed for its massively productive fishing the Georges Banks have been overfished for a long period of time leading to a massive reduction in the amount, range and quality of fish that this area produces. For the last few decades commercial fishing has been restricted in Georges Bank in an attempt to allow fish stocks to recover. This has met with mixed success, and led to sometimes bitter arguments between fishermen, government and conservationists.

Characteristics of Georges Bank

Georges Bank lies approximately sixty miles off the North American coast. It is roughly 150 miles in length by 80 miles across. Like the Grand Banks, Georges Bank has unique geographical features which account for its productivity. The area that makes up Georges Bank was once above sea level and formed part of the American mainland and held all manner of land-dwelling creatures. However, following massive changes in the world’s topography following the last glacial age rising sea levels saw the Georges Bank become submerged beneath the Atlantic Ocean. This means that the area of the Georges Bank creates a raised undersea plateau which is much shallower than the surrounding sea.

Georges Bank Bathymetric Map

Bathymetric map showing how the Georges bank is much shallower than the surrounding area.

These characteristics allowed light to reach the seabed, creating abundant plant life and a perfect environment for sea creatures such as plankton and small fish such as herring and capelin (1). This, along with the flow of the Labrador Current, attracted masses of much bigger (and more commercially valuable) fish. Cod, haddock, hake, yellowtail flounder and halibut were all abundant in the Georges Bank, along with a multitude of other species such as crabs, lobsters, shellfish and whales and dolphins.

Early Fishing

The immense productivity of the Georges Bank became well known following the arrival of John Cabot (who also discovered – or at least popularised – the fishing potential of the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland) in North America in the 1490s. By the 1500s Georges Bank was being fished by vessels from Europe – particularly France and Spain – which would catch cod, haddock and many other species and salt their catch and store it in barrels for the long journey home (2), while the Basque people of northern Spain specialised in catching Georges Bank whales to capitalise on the market for whale meat and blubber which was developing at this time. By the 1600s English colonists were also fishing the area and named it after Saint George, the patron Saint of England, leading to the modern-day name for this area (1).

For around 400 years Georges Bank produced a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fish (3). With a growing number of vessels fishing the area, and catches supplying America and Canada and being exported to Europe and the West Indies and Caribbean the number of fish showed no signs of diminishing.

Increasing Fishing Intensity

The first sign that Georges Bank fish stocks could be affected by commercial fishing came in the mid-1800s when a period of intensive fishing resulted in a noticeable drop in halibut catches (1). However this did little to provoke concern, as the abundance of the other species appeared to be unaffected. By the twentieth century the power and capability of the fishing vessels which operated in Georges Bank had grown significantly. Traditional sailing boats which fished with rod and lines had been replaced with steamers, which in turn gave way to diesel powered vessels by the 1950s (1). Intensive trawling was now the main method of fishing Georges Bank. The American Museum of Natural History states that “in an hour, a factory ship could haul in as much cod – around a hundred tons – as a typical 17th-century boat could catch in a season” (1).

Georges Bank Fish Species

In previous years halibut (1), cod (2), yellowtail flounder (3), haddock (4) and hake (5) were all abundant in the Georges Bank. All of these species have been reduced in number in recent years.

In the years following the Second World War the advent of factory trawlers saw Georges Bank subjected to ever increasing fishing pressure. In a similar story to what happened with the Grand Banks of Newfoundland the ability of huge trawlers to travel great distances and process and then freeze their catch on board meant that vessels could travel from all over the world to exploit the Georges Bank. Ships sailed from all over Europe, Japan, China and Russia to fish Georges Bank, joining the growing domestic fleets of the United States and Canada (1). By the 1970s the Americans and Canadians decided to enforce the 200 mile EEZ (Economic Exclusion Zone) which meant that the Georges Bank was no longr accessible for foreign fishing vessels. The area was then divided with Canada being granted the right to fish the north east part of Georges Bank, and America the rest.

With the foreign trawlers gone the US and Canada had the ideal opportunity to fish the area within safe sustainable limits and allow fish stocks to become replenished while still catching enough fish to maintain a viable commercial fishing industry. However, in a situation which was almost a carbon copy of what happened with the Grand Banks the governments of the US and Canada, under pressure from the commercial fishing lobby, allowed fishing to continue at a high intensity and refused to consider imposing any meaningful catch limits or restrictions (4). Cheap loans were also made available allowing fishing fleets to expand (6). Initially this was a successful and prosperous time for the commercial fishing industry around these parts of America and Canada as the Georges Bank fish allowed employment in the fishing industry to flourish as the number of commercial vessels grew. As well as this, exploratory drilling was carried out to ascertain if there was oil to be found within the Georges Bank area, although nothing was discovered (7), (5).

It was only a matter of time until the inevitable happened and by the 1980s it was becoming clear that the legendary productivity of Georges Bank was fading fast. Catches were down, principally amongst the three most exploited fish species – cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder. A 1994 study by the National Marine Fisheries Service was the tipping point. This survey found that fish stocks had reduced by 40% since 1990 and the commercial fishing fleet which worked the area was around double the size that the fishery could sustain (13). Restrictions on commercial fishing were put in place in May 1995 which were meant to halve fishing intensity (6). By October of the same year it was apparent that these restrictions were having little effect and more stringent action was needed, with scientists stating that catches of the three principal species would have to be reduced to “practically zero” (6) in order to see any kind of recovery. There were also major restrictions on the number of days that vessels could spend at sea with commercial vessels limited to 139 days per year initially, although it was found that too many fish were still being taken and this was later reduced to eighty-eight days (13). Unsurprisingly, commercial fishermen were furious but restrictions were nevertheless put in place with further quota limits also being introduced. There was also a moratorium on exploratory drilling for oil which took effect in 1988 and was due to expire in 2012 (it was later extended until 2017).

Attempts to Undo the Damage

The restrictions in commercial fishing did not see fish stocks improve in Georges Bank, and even after a sustained period of reigning back commercial fishing fish levels still remained well below mid-twentieth century levels, and a world away from the levels before the 1900s (8). Today, commercial fishing continues on a reduced basis. Some areas are totally closed to commercial fishing, whereas in others it is allowed on a limited basis with fishermen having strict quotas. It is not currently know how long the area will take to recover, and it is possible that fish stocks will never fully replenish themselves in Georges Bank (1), (9).

Georges Bank Cod

An image taken from the book Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States (1887) by George Brown Goode showing Georges bank cod being gutted on the dockside.

Even prior to the 1994 study and the following legislation the decline of the Georges Bank fishery had been causing economic problems – dwindling stocks of cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder costing an estimated 14,000 jobs and $350 million in lost revenues. However, the continued decline has worsened the situation, with the US Department for Commerce officially classing the Georges Bank fishery as an economic disaster, with calls for further money and compensation for the fishing industry that has been left decimated by the decline of the fishery (10). Cuts, reductions and restrictions continue today – in 2013 the already reduced quota for Georges Bank cod was cut by 61% (11), and the number of vessels in the north east American groundfish fleet had reduced from 570 in 2009 to 420 in 2011 (11). The representatives of some fishermen have launched legal action in an attempt to have the quota reductions and other restrictions overturned (12).

What Next for the Georges Bank?

The story of the Georges Bank is remarkably similar to that of the cod fishery of the Grand Banks. Both were hugely productive fisheries which sustained commercial fishing for hundreds of years. Once the advent of modern vessels and factory trawlers threatened the sustainability of the fisheries foreign vessels were banned from the area through the introduction of an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). However, once the the respective countries gained control of their fishing grounds they did not begin fishing them sustainably but instead exploited them even more intensively with little concern for the long to medium term consequences. Eventually the governments and authorities responsible for both the Grand Banks and Georges Bank have learned that once a fishery is subjected to intensive commercial fishing for a prolonged period of time even a near complete cessation of commercial fishing is not enough to restore fish stocks – a story worth remembering for fisheries the world over.

References:

  1. The Sorry Story of the Georges Bank – The American Museum of Natural History
  2. Rose, G. A. (2008) Cod: An Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries, Breakwater Books.
  3. Atlantic: Georges Bank – www.marine-conservation.org
  4. The Tragedy of the Commons on Georges Bank, and Elsewhere – www.sustainer.org [Link no longer active].
  5. MacLeish, W. Oil, Fish, and Georges Bank – The Atlantic, September 1981.
  6. Cushman, J. Commercial Fishing Halt is Urged for Georges Bank, New York Times, 27th October 1994.
  7. Jess, K. Oil Drilling Moratorium on Georges Bank Extended – Digital Journal 18th May 2010.
  8. Overfished in Georges Bank – serc.carleton.edu
  9. Will the Fish Return? – The American Museum of Natural History [Link no longer active].
  10. Tierney Eyes Tariff Money for Fisheries Aid – Gloucester Times, 5th February 2015 [Link no longer active].
  11. Fish Consumers May Not Notice Cuts that are Hurting Fishermen – Patriot Ledger [Link no longer active].
  12. Irons, E. Coakley Files Lawsuit Over Fishing Cuts, Boston Globe, 30th May 2013.
  13. Kurlansky, M. (1997) Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, Vintage Publishing.
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