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FAO Fisheries Circular No. 920 FIRM/C920

Rome, 1997

ISSN 0429-9329

Marine Resources Service,
Fishery Resources Division,
Fisheries Department,
FAO, Rome, Italy



FAO Statistical Area 21


Figure This cold-water area has been an important area for commercial fisheries from as early as the 1500s. Coastal fisheries (Figure B1.1) occur in a marine regime dominated by the cold-water Baffin Current which moves southward next to the shore. Offshore warmers waters brought north by the Gulf Stream are found. Three shallow water areas (the Grand Banks, the Scotian Shelf and George's Bank) have traditionally been the source of most of the rich demersal fisheries of the region. Other smaller shelf areas include Hamilton Bank (important for cod fisheries in the 1970s and 1990s), the Flemish Cap (important for redfish fisheries) and the southern region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The "nose and tail" of the Grand Banks lie outside the Canadian EEZ in international waters as does the Flemish Cap.

Although some stocks, particularly invertebrates such as lobster and scallop, are at levels which can be considered healthy, the general situation of the demersal stocks that were the dominant resources of the past continues to be discouraging. In the northern area (Labrador and the Grand Banks) there are demersal stock collapses caused by heavy fishing and environmental effects, mainly the low water temperature of the Labrador current. During 1995 many traditional demersal fisheries remained closed or operated on reduced quotas due to the depressed stock biomasses. Prospects are improving for haddock and flatfish on the Scotian Shelf and, while stocks of demersal fish are low, the condition of individual fish appears to be improving. US surveys report record highs for the coastal stock complex of herring, and herring larval surveys indicate abundance of about 50% of the peaks observed during 1973-74. Landings or pelagic species are slightly below recent historic levels and while landings of invertebrates are declining they continue to contribute the greatest value to NW Atlantic fisheries. Dogfish, a relatively recent arrival, continue to dominate the demersal biomass in the southern areas.


Figure B1.2
figure Peak landings in Area 21 occurred during the late 1960s, with an average of 4.0 million tonnes per year during this decade. Landings declined to 3.3 million tonnes in 1990 and yet further to 2.0 million tonnes in 1994 ( Figure B1.2 and Table I). The peak in the late 1960s can be seen as principally due to large landings of species in ISSCAAP Groups 32 and 35. Although reported catches of herrings of ISSCAAP Group 35 have declined considerably from this earlier peak, herring is now the dominant group. This is largely due to the catastrophic decline in catches of ISSCAAP Group 32 species. The high total catches of the late 1960s were sustained into the early 1970s by increasing catches of mackerels, redfishes and jacks (ISSCAAP Groups 37, 33 and 34 respectively).

By the late 1970s catches of species in these three ISSCAAP Groups had declined. During the 1980s and 1990s the clams and cockles of ISSCAAP Group 56 became more significant, and catches of these species are now second only to the herrings. Catches of species in another mollusc group, the scallops of ISSCAAP Group 55, are now the third largest ISSCAAP Group.

Figure B1.3
figure Figure B1.3 shows the trends in reported landings of gadoids and highlights the decline that has occurred in this important group. The most important member of this group has been cod (Gadus morhua). Reported landings of this species literally peaked in 1968 at ~1 866 000 t and then fell steeply to ~482 000 t in 1978. There was a subsequent recovery during the period 1982 to 1989, followed by the collapse to the point of closure of the fisheries in Canada, essentially still the situation in Canada today.

The decline in landings of cod has been progressively greater in the northern part of its range (i.e. Labrador, The Grand Banks, Scotian Shelf and Gulf of St. Lawrence). In 1989, when landings were at a level of 639 936 t, landings by the US, which would mainly be from their EEZ, were 5.6% of the total. In the following years, this percentage increased from 7.8% to 36.2% as ocean cooling and subsequent stock closures took effect and landings fell to 48 477 t in 1994.

Figure B1.4 Figure B1.5
figure figure Declines have also been recorded for haddock, a gadoid of importance in the more inshore fisheries. Changes in landings of silver hake have largely reflected the result of fishing agreements reached between the Cuban and Canadian Governments, though catches of this species were also taken by eastern European fleets in the past. The flatfish and redfish (species Groups 31 and 33 respectively) are other demersal groups showing a decline corresponding to that of cod (Figure B1.4 and Table I). Shrimps are now the fourth most important group landed (i.e. pink shrimps, Figure B1.5), whereas in the past the catches of these crustaceans had been insignificant relative to the enormous catches of cod. Lobster, in contrast, have shown an increase that, while not as important as that of shrimp, is still noteworthy.

Figure B1.6
figure The smaller pelagic species (Figure B1.6) are another group that has shown large variations in landings. Herring, still important, reached nearly a million tonnes of landings in 1968 and 1969 (Table I) as foreign fleets, primarily eastern European vessels, targeted stocks on Georges Bank. However, a decade later reported landings were down to 252 949 t and continued to decline, a consequence of falling stocks and reduced demand as North Sea herring stocks recovered and the western Atlantic stock, with its higher oil content, lost market share. Since the adoption of extended fisheries jurisdiction (EFJ) the catches of Atlantic mackerel have also been affected by the exclusion of distant water fishing nations (DWFNs) from the EEZs of Canada and the USA Peak landings (420 500 t) were reported in 1973 while catches in the 1990s have ranged from 65 467 t in 1990 to 27 685 t in 1994. Capelin too show a similar trend, the consequence of varying effort by DWFNs. In 1972 272 400 t were landed, compared with 2 242 t in 1994.

While important pelagic and demersal resources have been declining, molluscan catches (Figure B1.5) have expanded dramatically as new resources have been exploited in response to availability of markets, both for domestic and export markets. While ocean quahog had always been harvested in small quantities prior to 1976 (reported landings had not exceeded 4 700 t), after 1976 catches went up steadily to 195 793 t in 1985 and stayed above 169 732 t in subsequent years. Surf clam and American scallop are the other important shellfish in this group.

Prior to the introduction of EFJ in 1977 catches by distant water fishing fleets made up nearly half of the total catches taken in the Northwest Atlantic. The majority of the catches in several Northwest Atlantic fisheries were taken by distant water fishing fleets (i.e. in the 1970s, Canadian catches of cod constituted only 26% of the total). The development of these distant-water fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic occupies a central role in the history of Europe from at least the 15th century. Peak landings by foreign vessels were in 1973 with reported catches of 2 453 093 t. It is only in the last few years with the advent of extended jurisdiction that these centuries old fisheries have almost stopped. By the 1980s the DWFNs (all nations except Canada, Greenland, St. Pierre and Miquelon and the USA) share of the catch had declined to 12%.

The decline of the groundfish fisheries has seen the DWFN's share drop further in the 1990s, to only 6.8% of the catch in 1994 (39.9% of this foreign catch was taken by Spain, 22.2% by Portugal, 9.1% by Cuba and 8.7% by Norway, with ten countries sharing the remainder). Of the species taken, 43.2% were various flat fish (of which Greenland halibut was the most important), 15.4% were shrimp (mainly Pandulus borealis taken in Davis Strait), 14.0% various gadoids and 14.0% redfish (both taken on Flemish Cap and the nose and tail of the Grand Bank) and 8.9% sharks (taken mainly by longline).

Following the exclusion of the DWFN fleets, several stocks showed signs of recovery. However, as the historical profile of landings reveals, these resurgences were short-lived. The programme of fisheries nationalization undertaken by both the USA and Canada resulted in rapidly increasing levels of national fishing effort. The Canadian share of total catches of ISSCAAP Group 32 (cods, hakes, haddocks etc.) jumped from 26% in the 1970s to 64% in the 1980s. The recent trends in resources within the EEZs of Canada, the USA and Greenland are discussed further in the description of the status of selected resources.

Despite the dominance of USA and Canadian catches in the Northwest Atlantic, the catches by Greenland and St. Pierre and Miquelon are of interest. The fisheries of Greenland occur at the margin of the range for cod and depend on climatic fluctuations. Cooling results in a decline of catches; warming causes a contrary trend. This effect has been traced back to the Viking habitation of Greenland. Catches by Greenland increased five-fold between 1950 and 1990 (from ~27 000 t to ~133 000 t), during which time the species composition of the catch shifted from being almost entirely cod to being half cod, half shrimp. By 1994, while shrimp landings had continued to grow (to 75 908 t), landings of cod had collapsed to 3 971 t, - 6.7% drop in landings in 1990. Also of international interest has been the decline in salmon landings from 1 433 t/yr during the 1970s to 23 t in 1994. This decline in landings of salmon by Greenland demonstrates how effective agreements have been in reducing 'intercepted' catches of this anadromous species, under threat in many of the countries in which it spawns.

The fisheries of St. Pierre and Miquelon owed their existence to rights with Canada for cod fisheries within the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These became territorial waters when Canada implemented a closing line between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A subsequent World Court Ruling restricted the territorial waters of these French Islands to a coastal region and a narrow 200-mile-wide coastal strip extending southwards and enclosed by Canadian waters on both sides. The collapse in landings by St. Pierre and Miquelon is the result of the general stock collapse in the area and the loss of fishing privileges (though as recently as 1990 and 1991 landings of 19 138 and 19 164 t were reported). By 1993 catches were down to 155 t with a slight recovery to 272 t in 1994, though still negligible in historical terms. Redfish, previously a minor species, is now the dominant species landed.

In addition to fisheries for the marine fish and invertebrate species described above, fisheries for seals in this region have existed since the early 1700s and have been an important part of the economic and social history of Eastern Canada, particularly in the poorer regions of Newfoundland. The major fishery has been on the harp fishery at pupping time when seal pups were harvested primarily for their white coats and secondarily for their meat. A ban on the use of seal products in the EC following effective protests by animal protection societies caused the markets for the seal skins to collapse. Additionally, as a consequence of the negative publicity, the Canadian Government closed the fishery for pups. The role of seals as competitors with man for fish remains disputed.


Following the introduction of EFJs in 1977 the majority of the marine resources of the Northwest Atlantic came within the EEZ's of Canada and the USA (with minor resources in the EEZ's of Greenland and St. Pierre and Miquelon, as noted above). As evident from the downward trend in landings, stocks of the once most important gadoids are near their lowest levels ever. This appears to be the consequence of two phenomena: excess fishing pressure and cooling of ocean temperatures. In Canada, several formerly major fisheries have been closed, while in the United States management efforts are still struggling to implement schemes for effective reduction of fishing effort.


The history of the fisheries on the Grand Bank and other shelf areas of Canada pre-date the European exploration and Settlement of that area. When Jacques Cartier voyaged into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence for the 'first time' he had already encountered European vessels fishing in the area. For several centuries the history of the fisheries of this area was the history of salt cod, usually caught by line from small vessels. The switch to trawler technology has been mainly a transformation of the last generation. The event of greatest importance in recent years has been the extension of jurisdiction by Canada over fish stocks within the 200nm limit. With this extension much optimism existed that national catches would increase considerably through better resource management. This has not been the case, and large infusions of 'transfer payments' were needed to achieve Federal Government social objectives.

The downturn of the northern cod fisheries in the last decade has been widely documented, and debate continues with regard to the relative importance of 'overfishing' and environmental effects. No doubt, both have been factors in the virtual commercial extinction of the cod fisheries, one of the most famous and historical in the world. There has been some evidence that 4-5 year old cod are spawning in some areas, but it is accepted that it is still too early to consider unrestricted opening of the fishery. The collapse of groundfish stocks has not been restricted to the more northern Newfoundland grounds but has extended to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Scotian Shelf.

A key issue in Canadian waters remains the strategy for recovery of these northern cod stocks. The fisheries continue to remain closed at great social and economic cost and, though there have been some signs of recovery in limited areas, stock levels are nowhere near those required for reopening fisheries. Concern continues with the applicability of one of the main methods of stock assessment, virtual population analysis (VPA). Retrospective analyses show that this method continues to be too optimistic in terms of stock sizes and that, as more data become available, year class strengths are inevitably reduced - though of course, this is after the quotas set have been fished for the years in question.

The 1996 wazzu assessments include closures of 11 demersal stocks which will allow these stocks to benefit from the less harsh ocean conditions. Further, some southerly stocks are showing indications of recovery. Encouraging signs have been evident for haddock stocks on parts of the Scotian Shelf and there has been improved recruitment of flatfish. Despite this, it will take between 5 and 10 years for year classes to mature after recruitment. While a single successful year class may be sufficient to rebuild depressed redfish stocks, several successful year classes will be necessary to rebuild the spawning stock biomasses of cod, flatfish and white hake. For these stocks it will take 7 to 12 years from the time of successful recruitment to rehabilitation of the fishery.

Not all fish stocks are in a distressed situation. Lobsters, an extremely valuable species, continue to be landed near their record high levels and, because of strong market demand, the fishermen have been earning more than ever. As in many other areas the expansion of fisheries for non-traditional species is providing alternative opportunities for fishermen whose traditional resources are either fully or over-exploited. In Canada, these include fisheries for snow crab, toad crab, sea urchins, northern shrimp and Arctic surf calm.

In the Gulf of St. Lawrence the grey seal population is growing at a rate of about 8% per year; outside of the Gulf, on Seal Island, the population is growing at a rate of 12.6%/yr. Estimates of harp seals depend on determining the number of pups and then extrapolating the size of the adult population. During the 1970s estimates of pup production ranged between 250 000 and 500 000. In 1990, pup production was estimated to be 580 000 ± 13%, while in 1994 production was estimated at 703 000 ± 18%. Total harp seal population size in 1994 was estimated to be 4.1 million animals. A replacement yield (i.e. number that could be harvested without changing the total population) is estimated to be 287 000 animals. Total prey consumption by harp seals was estimated to be 6.9 million tonnes in 1994. Of this, 46% was from Arctic waters, 40% from Eastern Newfoundland and 14% from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Most of their prey is Arctic cod, a non-commercial species; but an estimated 620 000 t of capelin were also consumed. Atlantic cod is a relatively small part of their diet though, despite this, it is estimated that harp seals would have consumed approximately 88 000 t of this species in 1994. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, consumption of cod by harp seals was estimated to be around 54 000 t. The majority of fish eaten by these seals are young, 10-20 cm in length. It is realized that the assumptions used in these estimates may change as scientific knowledge about the bio-energetics and prey of these animals improves.

United States

The fisheries of the northeast USA have a long tradition, based on the highly productive demersal resources of Georges Bank and, to a lesser extent, the famous lobster fisheries of the Gulf of Maine. Other significant fisheries have been for scallop and flat fish. A variety of fishing gear are used but the "dragger" trawler has become the dominant type of fishing. In the 1970s and early 1980s a large foreign fishery, primarily of eastern European factory trawlers, was directed at resources on the Georges Bank starting a trend of resource depletion that has still not been reversed. Herring were fished to commercial extinction, and ground fish stocks are today at, or near, their lowest levels ever. Management is hard pressed to implement conservation measures that are acceptable to the industry.

Small pelagic species have also been important, particularly herring on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, and menhaden, a large clupeoid with a migratory range along the Atlantic Sea Board. Other small pelagics harvested include Atlantic mackerel, butterfish and short and long-finned squid. These fisheries are seasonal as these species over-winter in the relatively warm offshore waters of the Mid-Atlantic continental shelf and southward to avoid the cooled waters of the north; inshore migrations for feeding occur in the spring and summer. Atlantic mackerel and herring were heavily exploited by distant-water fleets during the 1970s with a concomitant decrease in their abundance.

Species occupying, at least for some part of their life cycle, estuarine of freshwater habitats also appear to be under extreme stress. In New England, these are primarily menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and shad (Alosa pseudoharengus). USA landings of alewife in 1994 were 0.6% of those for the average throughout the 1950s; those for bluefish in 1994 were 58.2% of those for the 1950s and those for shad were 13.8%.

The status of stocks in the USA are classified according to the current level of abundance relative to the long-term potential yield (LTPY). These data show that the Recent Annual Yield (RAY) for the northeast demersal and pelagic groups are significantly below their LTPY, being 36.3% and 45.5% respectively. RAY for Atlantic anadromous species are in line with their LTPYs:

 Unit/Fishery (in tonnes)

Entire Range of Stock

Prorated within USA’s EEZ

Total RAY

Total CPY

Total LTPY



Northeast demersals

185 535

183 735

479 335

145 900

402 365

Northeast pelagics

165 800

724 300

412 000

115 600

253 920

Atlantic anadromous

4 836

4 836

4 836

4 836

4 836

Northeast invertebrates

99 500

99 900

72 500

93 568

89 357


455 671

1 012 771

968 671

359 904

750 478


The status of the resources in terms of their relative level of exploitation is summarized as follows:

 Species/ Stock Unit

Stock status

Under Exploited

Fully Exploited

Over Exploited

Groundfish and flounders




Skates and dogfish




Other finfish




Pelagic fish














As demersal fisheries in the Northeast occur in mixed species aggregations, this results in significant bycatch interactions in directed fisheries for specific target species. This complicates management, and this is reflected in the complex regulations governing mesh sizes, gear types, seasonal openings and closures, as set by the relevant management agencies (e.g. the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Councils and, in the case of stocks shared with Canada, the Canadian government). Management of these resources has been through indirect methods such as mesh-size regulation, minimum lengths for landed fish and some area closures. There are no direct controls on fishing mortality but an effort reduction programme has been started. It is acknowledged that there has been consistent overfishing of the resource.

Pelagic fisheries in the northeast are regulated through two plans developed by the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (one for squid, mackerel and butterfish, and the second for bluefish) and a third by the ASM Fisheries Committee for Atlantic Sea Herring. The long-term population trends for mackerel and herring have fluctuated considerably during the last 25 years, reaching minimal levels in the mid-to-late 1970s, a consequence of the marked declines for both species and collapse of the Georges Bank herring. Measurements of stock abundance of the pelagic resources are relatively imprecise because of the highly variable results possible from trawl surveys which are used for calibrating cohort analysis models. This problem is compounded by the short life span of squid (annuals) and butterfish and the current low rates of exploitation of mackerel and herring because of low market demand.


Shrimp have become the most important resource for Greenland and the Davis Strait area. In the northern part of the fishing area (NAFO Area 1B) catch rates showed a significant decrease from 1987 to 1989, were relative stable from 1989 to 1993 and then decreased further from 1993 to 1994. In division 1CD there was an increase from 1987 to 1988 and fluctuations with a decreasing trend from 1988 to 1994. The strength of recently recruiting year classes indicates that there will be some increase in stock size, although recruitment is far less than the 1985 year class that maintained the fishery's relatively high catch rates from 1990 to 1994.

Redfishes, which in this area are mainly those of Sebastes marinus, have shown a trend in landings that parallels those of the gadoids. Annual average landings peaked at 303 633 t/yr during the 1960s, then declined to 233 797 t in 1993, recovering slightly to 129 530 t in 1994.