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MANAGEMENT OF THE ATLANTIC GROUNDFISH FISHERY Under the US Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, 1977–1982


Frank Grice and Peter Colosi
National Marine Fisheries Service - Northeast Region
Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA

Atlantic Groundfish Management

The Atlantic Groundfish Management Plan was the first fishery management plan developed and implemented under the United States Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 (FCMA), the US 200-mile fisheries legislation. The plan was hurriedly developed for the New England Fishery Management Council, by modifying the existing quota management system then in place under the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF). At the time, it was important that no hiatus in regulations governing both domestic and foreign fishermen be allowed to occur following US withdrawal from ICNAF.

In March of 1977, when the plan went into effect, the stocks of groundfish (defined in the plan as cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder) were still severely depressed, having been drastically over-fished in the 1960s and early 1970s by the huge distant-water fleets which had concentrated on the Northwest Atlantic.

Since the 1930s, these three species had produced annual landings by US fishermen of approximately 140,000 tonnes, without any indications of over-fishing. In 1965 and 1966, total landings of haddock alone averaged 135,000 tonnes in comparison with the previous long-term average US catch of 52,000 tonnes. By 1974, the annual catch of haddock had declined to only about 5,000 tonnes.

Cod stocks, following the years of heavy foreign fishing in the 1960s, had rebuilt more rapidly than haddock and, by 1977, catches had been restored to about 2/3 of the former long-term average (about 45,000 tonnes). Yellowtail flounder stocks, although subject to wide fluctuations in the past even before heavy foreign fishing, appeared to have a long-term potential of about 40,000 tonnes annually, although in 1977 landings were only about 1/3 of that average.

The US groundfish fishery traditionally has been primarily an otter-trawl fishery, utilizing small to medium sized vessels up to a maximum size of about 150 tonnes. The smallest of these vessels make one-day trips and the others normally fish three to eight-day trips. Smaller amounts of groundfish are also taken commercially by gillnets and line trawls and an active recreational fishery exists for cod and haddock. A total of 641 commercial vessels were involved in the fishery in 1976 and this number rapidly increased to almost 1,000 vessels by 1979. Fishing for groundfish normally takes place both in inshore, or coastal waters, and offshore out to 200 miles.

Under ICNAF jurisdiction, increasingly restrictive quotas, by-catch limitations, mesh size restrictions and closed spawning areas were beginning to provide effective resource protection. When these restrictions, especially the relatively low individual species quotas, were incorporated into the new management regime, the US industry was shocked into the realization that simply eliminating foreign fishing had not solved all their problems. Approximately four months after the new plan was implemented, the first closure for domestic fishermen was imposed on the cod fishery in the Gulf of Maine when the annual quota for that area (5,000 tonnes) was attained (see Table 1). Subsequently, before the summer of 1977 was over, the entire cod fishery was closed and it was obvious that long-term closure of the whole groundfish fishery was imminent. Such an overall closure came in December, even though the quotas had been increased in November by emergency action in an attempt to avoid the severe economic impact of a total closure.

Table 1
Major actions under the Groundfish Management Plan for the period 1977 to 1982

Effective DateAction
15 MarchGroundfish Management Plan implemented: contains annual quotas, mesh size, minimum fish size, closed spawning areas, mandatory reporting. Quotas: Cod - Gulf of Maine, 5,000 tonnes; Georges Bank, 200,000 tonnes; Haddock, 6,200 tonnes; Yellowtail - 69°E 10,000 tonnes, 69°W 4,000 tonnes.
8 JulyGulf of Maine cod fishery closed - incidental catch only allowed.
22 AugustGeorges Bank cod fishery closed - incidental catch only allowed.
3 NovemberQuotas increased: Cod - Gulf of Maine 12,000 tonnes, and Georges Bank 21,650 tonnes; Haddock, 10,500 tonnes; Yellowtail founder - 69°W 6,000 tonnes. Daily trip limits imposed on vessels taking cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder in non-directed fishing activity.
23 DecemberAll cod, haddock and yellowtail fisheries closed for remainder of calendar year.
1 JanuaryAnnual quotas for 1978 fishing year: Cod - Gulf of Maine, 6,000 tonnes; Georges Bank, 22,000 tonnes; Haddock, 8,000 tonnes; Yellowtail flounder - 69°W 3,700 tonnes, 69°E 4,400 tonnes.
1 MarchGulf of Maine cod fishery closed - incidental catch only allowed.
19 MarchGeorges Bank cod fishery closed - incidental catch only allowed. Entire haddock fishery closed.
30 AprilMajor Plan amendement: cod fishery re-opened but changed from directed fishery to incidental fishery by weekly trip limits.
7 MayCod, haddock and yellowtail flounder, weekly trip limits based on vessel classes.
2 JuneCod and haddock weekly trip limit reductions.
1 JulyFinal regulations of plan amendment initiated on 30 April 1978.
23 JulyCod, haddock and yellowtail flounder, vessel class allocation system fully implemented.
5 AugustGulf of Maine cod fishery closed for 61–125 GRT and fixed gear vessel classes.
16 AugustGulf of Maine cod fishery closed for all vessel classes.
17 SeptemberGeorges Bank cod fishery closed for 61–125 GRT vessel class. Yellowtail founder trip limits reduced.
1 OctoberNew fishing year dates established (1 October to 30 September) with new quotas and vessel class trip limits.
13 November
27 November
17 December
Thirteen cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder fishery closures of various vessel classes during first quarter of fishing year.
4 FebruaryFive cod and haddock fishery closures for vessel classes in second quarter.
13 MarchYellowtail flounder trip limits reduced.
22 AprilGulf of Maine cod fishery closed for 61–125 GRT vessel class.
28 AprilYellowtail flounder fishery closed for all vessel classes west of 69°.
22 JulyGulf of Maine cod fishery closed for all vessel classes. Gulf of Maine, haddock fishery closed for 61–125 GRT and 125+GRT vessel classes.
1 OctoberAll vessel class quotas increased to reflect stock size increases.
6 AprilYellowtail flounder incidental catch limits increased.
13 AprilYellowtail flounder fishery west of 69° closed to directed fishery.
30 SeptemberGulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod fishery weekly trip limits reduced.
1 OctoberNew vessel class quotas established for new fishing year.
2 OctoberPlan amendment final, new quotas in place.
21 DecemberYellowtail flounder fishery trip limits for west of 60° increased.
5 AprilGulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod fishery trip limits reduced.
29 SeptemberInterim Groundfish Plan approved by Council.
30 MarchInterim Groundfish Plan implemented by emergency regulations.

In the next few years, many similar emergency increases in the quotas were advocated by the fishing industry and the New England Fishery Management Council and either implemented or rejected by the National Marine Fisheries Service. These changes in quotas and closures, coupled with the adoption of many new regulations designed to provide for a more equitable allocation of the harvest, based on boat size and area fished, added up to a complicated maze of rapidly changing regulations which throughly disillusioned even the most conscientious fishermen. In 1978 a total of 16 regulatory changes in the groundfish management regime occurred.

In 1979 there was widespread industry dissatisfaction with the existing vessel class and trip limits, which had been established to spread the annual quota throughout the fishing year. Many fishing vessels were in violation of the existing regulations on every trip they made. Other vessel operators utilized a loophole created by the lack of complementary regulations in some state waters (0–3 miles) to claim that their catches were from these inshore areas rather than from the area under federal jurisdiction (3–200 miles).

This illegal activity was encouraged by a lack of timely prosecution of those fishermen who were apprehended by the enforcement agencies. Some chronic violators openly defied the fishing regulations, because the legal steps required to penalize infractions were so cumbersome and time-consuming that it appeared that no penalties would ever be actually imposed. Also, because of an extensive appeal system incorporated into the law, some fishermen were able to avoid the payment of any fines for over five years.

One of the major reasons for the lack of support from industry for the quotas was the rapid recruitment and consequent abundance of all three species of groundfish. Much better than average year classes of cod and haddock were spawned in 1975 and, by 1977, these young fish were beginning to recruit to the fishery in such large numbers that catch rates increased markedly, leading to quota excesses and enormous discards of young fish too small to be marketed successfully.

Many fishermen, seeing the abundance of these young fish, felt that the restrictive quotas were no longer needed and advocated a wide-open fishery. However, assessment scientists were concerned that, since these few large year classes would have to provide for the re-building of the stocks until other successful year classes were spawned, it was important that fishing mortality of the young fish not be excessive.

Although net mesh size restrictions were a part of the groundfish management system, these regulations were practically unenforceable. Despite repeated attempts to get industry to support changes which would outlaw the possession of small mesh cod-ends on groundfish boats, this was never accomplished, since fishermen argued that it was necessary to use small mesh on the same trip for other species such as redfish and hakes, in order to make a profit. Through the use of small mesh codends and eventually even with legal-sized cod-ends of 130 mm, tremendous numbers of immature haddock, cod and yellowtail were discarded at sea or brought in to be sold at a lower price than normally paid.

In spite of the unpopular quota and trip limitations, the groundfish fleet expanded rapidly in the late 1970s, with the addition of many new vessels. Most of these new boats were medium to large stern-trawlers (over 100 tonnes) and replaced smaller, less capable old boats, thus greatly increasing the overall fishing power of the fleet.

The New England Fishery Management Council which, by law, was charged with the responsibility of developing and monitoring the Fishery Management Plan for groundfish, was reluctant to recommend any action which directly addressed the issue of limiting fishing effort. Thus no attempt to impose any effort limitations on the rapidly expanding fleet occurred, even though it was obvious that the quotas were being split between more boats, many of which had much greater fishing power than the older vessels which formerly made up the fleet. As new vessels came into the fleet, the vessel class quota system became more and more unbalanced, since most of the new additions to the fleet were in the large vessel class, yet no change was made in the percentage of the total quota assigned to that class. By 1979 the large vessels were almost always facing closures, whereas the medium and small-boat classes were not as severely limited.

Despite this imbalance, the Council was reluctant to make adjustments in the four vessel class quotas, since they had become so disillusioned with the quota management system that they felt it was better to replace the plan completely rather than attempt any fine tuning. Eventually, the quota system was replaced with a much simpler, less restrictive plan, incorporating only spawning area seasonal closures, mesh size restrictions by area and minimum fish-size limits. This system, called the Interim Groundfish Plan, was designed to provide a temporary change from the quota system until a more comprehensive and, hopefully, acceptable plan could be developed by the Council. It was recognized that this Interim Groundfish Plan might be sufficient by itself to protect the groundfish stocks from over-fishing.

Of all the various management regulations which were implemented under the original groundfish plan, only one received general acceptance by the fishermen. This was the closure to fishing of areas designated as major haddock spawning grounds for those months when most of the spawning activity occurred. Two major offshore areas where known concentrations occurred were closed to bottom fishing for the months of March, April and May of each year. The rationale behind this measure was that spawning success would be enhanced by providing protection for the mature fish and their spawn in these areas of concentration.

In summary, the Atlantic Groundfish Plan after its implementation in 1977 quickly became highly unpopular with both the groundfish industry and the Council which was responsible for its development. Within the first year, because of industry pressure, increases in the quotas were made. This set a precedent for many later emergency adjustments and changes which eventually became so numerous as to be almost incomprehensible.

The fishing industry perceived the quota restrictions as being unnecessarily restrictive, because of the apparent rebuilding of the stocks. Yet the inflexibility inherent in the administration of the law resulted in long delays between new stock assessments and corresponding adjustments in the quotas. Also, the lack of timely prosecution and imposition of penalties for violations of the quotas and other regulations led to repeated violations by some boats and the feeling by many other fishermen that anyone could get away with violating whatever parts of the system they disagreed with.

These attitudes eroded any real support for the plan either by the industry or the New England Fishery Management Council itself. It was perceived that the plan was not working, notwithstanding that in only four years the stocks were well on their way to recovery to former levels, the fishing fleet had been rebuilt and the value of landings had more than doubled.

The primary lesson to be learned from past management of the groundfish fishery is that any system must be capable of being understood by those being regulated; must be consistently applied to all involved with some assurance of equity and must be responsive to resource and industry changes.

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