A Tale of Two Fisheries: Fishing and Over-Fishing in American Waters

man with giant crab
Editor's Note

Not too long ago, we viewed the oceans as an inexhaustible resource. Now, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic, from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea we find our oceans struggling, in some cases dying. Destructive fishing practices, pollution, "dead zones" from industrial and agricultural run-off, ocean acidification from CO2 emissions, and coral reefs suffering from the effects of global climate change are challenging the health of the oceans in unprecedented ways. It is an environmental disaster, of course, but also an economic one. All in, the value of goods and services derived from the world's oceans reaches US$21 trillion annually. This month, Ohio State historian Mansel Blackford discusses the problem of collapsing fish stocks. Looking at the very different histories of two American fisheries, he explores how best to manage our ocean resources.

In the spring of 2007, the author of an introduction to three essays in National Geographic warned, "The oceans are in deep blue trouble. From the northernmost reaches of the Greenland Sea to the swirl of the Antarctic Circle, we are gutting our seas of fish. . . . Nets scour reefs. Supertrawlers vacuum up shrimp. Nations flout laws."

There are valid reasons for concern. Numerous scientific reports have thoroughly documented the extent of over-fishing. Despite a growing awareness of the problem and efforts to address it by government officials and fishers alike, fish stocks around the globe have collapsed, most dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, Americans and other people around the world have watched as some of their favorite types of fish disappear from their dinner tables—North Atlantic cod, swordfish, and blue-fin tuna, to name a few—to be replaced by others, such as wild Alaskan salmon, pollock, Pacific cod, and sablefish.

There have been many efforts globally to address the over-fishing crisis, some more successful than others. Two American fishing regions highlight the pitfalls and possibilities of a sustainable fishing industry.

In the waters off New England, we see a marked failure to regulate bottom-fish catches. Fish stocks disappeared and along with them the livelihood of fishing families, some of whom had been in the business for generations.

Yet, far across the continent the Alaskan Pacific fisheries have succeeded in regulating the amount of bottom fish and, to some extent, salmon and crab taken from the water. It was no coincidence that when Atlantic fish disappeared from American meals, Pacific fish took its place.

However, even successful practices of sustainable harvesting are not without their own problems. Alaska's approach to fishing may have replenished fish stocks, but along the way it has also raised important questions of environmental justice. Debates have been fierce over who will benefit and who will lose out from these efforts to preserve fish stocks and the fishing industry.

Conservation, the fishing story tells us, is never easy.

The Over-Fishing Crisis

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, innovations in fishing and improvements in transportation helped fishers boost their catches—and consequently sales of seafood—enormously.

Large-scale, "industrial" fishing can be traced back to the 1870s and 1880s, when fishers started trawling with steam-powered vessels in British and European waters, such as the North Sea. At about the same time, railroads connected fishing ports to interior towns, increasing markets for fish.

Having depleted inshore and near-shore fishing grounds, steam trawlers fished far from their home ports by the 1920s and 1930s. Steam-powered trawlers came to dominate Canadian and American cod fisheries, and fast-freezing techniques, introduced to some fisheries at the same time, further extended operations.

The decades after the Second World War saw a tremendous expansion and intensification of global fishing. New, long-distance fishing and processing vessels stayed at sea for months at a time.

There was great optimism that off-shore fishing would provide the peoples of the world with much-needed protein at reasonable costs. In the 1950s and 1960s, some scientists estimated that the oceans and seas could sustain an annual seafood catch of 200-350 million metric tons per year, more than twice as much as was ever actually achieved. (A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms or 2,204 pounds.)

Popular movies such as the 1954 production of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues beneath the Sea" featured divers harvesting seemingly inexhaustible riches from seas and oceans. This tremendous optimism about oceanic resources rivaled that expressed about nuclear power and space at about the same time.

A global over-fishing crisis soon developed. Between 1950 and 1995, the global wild fish and shellfish catch soared from 19 to 94 million metric tons, a level it has maintained to the present day. The global catch stagnated after 1995, however, despite a tremendous intensification in fishing efforts. The fish cornucopia had disappeared.

Between 1970 and 1995, the number of fishing vessels worldwide increased from 451,000 to 885,000 and their aggregate size rose from 12 million gross registered tons (grt) to 82 million grt. (A gross registered ton is a measure of storage space equal to one hundred cubic feet.) [click to see chart: ' Global Capture Production, 1950-2005'] An increasing proportion of these ships were fast diesel- and gasoline-powered vessels, which were much more efficient than earlier ships in catching fish.

The ships used a broad array of sophisticated technological devices such as radar, sonar, loran, and Global Positioning Systems to find fish. They then caught fish with lines up to sixty-two miles in length, strung with tens of thousands of hooks. They dragged huge trawl nets across the ocean bottom, often "clear-cutting" the ocean floor in the process. By the 1990s a single trawl net might be large enough to hold a fleet of twelve Boeing 747 jumbo jets. And they deployed gigantic purse-seine nets made of light but strong synthetic fibers.

In 2007, one respected marine biologist summed it up: "The twentieth century heralded an escalation in fishing intensity that is unprecedented in the history of the oceans, and modern fishing technologies leave fish no place to hide."

Soon, fishing for many species got harder. The intensity of fishing for wild fish and crustaceans increased substantially faster than did the size of the fishing catch after 1970. More ships with better equipment made smaller catches per unit of effort. Profits became less assured for many fishing companies beginning in the 1970s and accelerating in later decades.

Regulating Ocean Fishing

Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United Nations, along with certain countries and organizations, began efforts to regulate fishing internationally. However, little was really accomplished until the 1970s, when many nations declared 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) out from their shorelines.

Authors of the EEZs were building on earlier United Nations Law of the Sea Conventions, which gave coastal nations control over the exploitation of their continental shelves. They were trying to ensure that ocean resources would be retained for their own citizens. Many were also interested in making fishing within their EEZs sustainable by placing limits on fish catches.

Alaskan fisheries expert Terry Johnson recently called the EEZs "the most profound change in the world's commercial ocean fisheries." By 2000, EEZs had brought about one-third of ocean waters and 75-90 percent of the globe's commercial fish under national controls.

Fishing trends for wild species in American waters were similar to those in many other regions of the globe. The number of fishing vessels plying North American waters jumped from 17,700 in 1970 to 42,500 in 1995, and during the same period their tonnage increased from 947,000 to 2, 217,000 grt. American fish landings rose from about 2.5 million metric tons in 1950 to a peak of 5.6 million metric tons in 1987, before slipping to 5.3 metric tons in 1995, and to just 5 million metric tons in 2004.

The United States proclaimed an EEZ in 1976 with the passage by Congress of the Federal Fishery Conservation and Management Act (FCMA), reenacted with some changes in 1996. This legislation extended the federal government's control over oil, minerals, and fish 200 miles out to sea. Basically, it banned foreign fishers from American waters.

The United States set up eight regional management councils to administer Total Allowable Catches (TACs) for different types of fish in their areas. TACs were often divided among established fishers by giving them individual transferable quotas (ITQs), thus virtually vesting them with property rights in their fish stocks. The ITQs usually gave fishers rights to a certain percentage of the annual catch of specified fish stocks.

The use of TACs and ITQs sought to avoid a "tragedy of the commons" in fisheries. In commonly held oceanic resources, there is little motivation for conservation. If one fisher voluntarily refrains from taking as many fish as possible, another fisher—lacking any legal or moral restraints on his or her actions—might well take those fish; even if doing so means that a fish stock might be greatly reduced in size.

The FCMA, as revised and renewed in 1996, required that the nation's eight fishery management councils devise ten-year plans to rebuild depleted fisheries. The plans were often unsuccessful in their charge, however. A survey of 300 major fish species completed in 1998 by the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service showed that 90 were over-fished, 10 were approaching that condition, and 200 were healthy. In 2006, the news was worse. A new survey revealed that 82 percent of the major fished stocks in American waters suffered from over-fishing.

Even so, the situation was and remains complex, varying by locale and by fish stock. Attempts to regulate the taking of bottom fish (especially Atlantic cod) in the Northwest Atlantic in the interests of sustainable harvests have largely failed. On the other hand, the regulation of fishing for salmon, crab, pollock, halibut, Pacific cod, and sablefish in the Northeast Pacific has been more successful.

Disappearing Cod and the North Atlantic

The Northwest Atlantic cod fishery is a particularly disastrous example of the results of treating the ocean as a nearly unregulated commons for too long. Commercially exploited from the 1500s, the Northwest Atlantic cod fishery—centered on the Georges Bank off Maine and the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia—yielded about 250,000 metric tons of fish annually in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, causing some local depletion.

Cod came under greatly increased pressure with the advent of long-distance trawling and processing vessels in the twentieth century, especially in the mid-1950s. By 1965, the Soviet Union alone had 106 factory trawlers and 425 smaller trawlers supplying 30 mother ships (processing vessels) in these waters.

The total Soviet catch in the Northwest Atlantic came to 886,000 metric tons that year, including 278,000 metric tons of cod and haddock, another bottom fish. Nine years later, 1,076 Soviet and Communist-bloc fishing vessels extracted 2,716,000 metric tons of fish from the banks, ten times the size of the catch taken by American fishers and three times that of Canadians.

After the passage of the FCMA in 1976 and the enactment of similar legislation by Canada's legislature, the Georges Bank and most of the Grand Banks were off-limits to the Spanish and British, who had long fished these grounds, as well as to newcomers, such as Soviet and East German fishers.

However, this situation did not lead to sustainable fishing. American fishers, working through the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC, one of the United States' eight regional management councils), and Canadian fishers, working through a fishery agency of their national government, simply replaced the foreigners. In an effort to create jobs for people in seaside communities that had few alternatives to fishing, both governments urged the fishing on with low-interest loans available for the construction of new fishing vessels (this provision was part of the FCMA).

Intense fishing pressure continued, as both Canadian and American management bodies—composed of government officials and fishers—set TACs that were much too high to be sustained. Over-fishing led to a crash of cod fisheries in the American and the Canadian EEZs.

The loss was tremendous. A leading American fisheries trade journal observed, "After the U.S. fleet eventually geared up, it took up where the foreign fleets had left off, especially in the Northeast. By the mid-1990s, catches of bedrock species like Atlantic cod had plummeted from more than 40,000 metric tons to about 10,000 metric tons," making cod "a cause célèbre."

In 2002, northern cod populations off Newfoundland were less than 0.5 percent of what they had been as late as the 1960s. Despite closures of the Georges Bank and the Grand Banks in the early and mid-1990s, cod did not rebound in population. On the contrary, they suffered an additional one-quarter drop in their population between 2001 and 2005.

Widespread job losses and partial depopulation occurred in cod-fishing regions facing the Atlantic. Most hard-hit was Newfoundland. The province's population fell 2.9 percent between 1991 and 1996, and by 1997 some 30,000 of the province's 570,000 residents were unemployed, mainly due to the closing of the over-fished cod industry.

The Alaskan Success Story

Many studies have decried the destruction of oceanic resources and especially over-fishing, including that of the cod of the Northwest Atlantic. Much less has been written about successes in regulating bottom fish, salmon, and (perhaps) crabs in Alaskan waters.

Nowhere has the use of TACs and ITQs gone farther than in Alaskan waters. Nowhere have they been more successful in making fisheries sustainable. Nowhere, however, have TACs and ITQs raised more environmental-justice concerns. Indeed, this dramatic success story was not achieved easily or without social costs. What has happened in Alaskan fisheries over the past two decades illustrates well major issues people across the globe face in dealing with their natural resources.

As catches for fish and shellfish fell in other American waters, Alaskan fisheries grew in relative importance. By the early 2000s, Alaskan waters accounted for about one-half of the seafood caught in the United States. The dockside value of Alaska's seafood harvest came to about $1.4 billion annually, and the state's seafood industry employed about 70,000 people.

Bottom fish composed the most important segment of the catch, surpassing even salmon and crabs in value. Many of the fish stocks were being exploited on a sustainable basis and were, noted one seafood journal, "in excellent shape."

Boats taking bottom fish had worked Alaskan waters for a century by the 1970s and 1980s. However, with over-fishing either an increasing reality or a threat, depending on the exact species, new management methods were developed in the 1990s and early 2000s. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC)—like the NEFMC one of the regional bodies set up by the FCMA—set the rules for fishing in the offshore waters of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

The NPFMC began regulating the take of bottom fish in Alaskan waters in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The council allocated TACs for bottom fish solely to American fishers in 1990, excluding foreigners and joint ventures. ITQs, which went only to well-established fishers, were added for halibut and sablefish in 1995-96, although not for Pacific cod or pollock. (Halibut were managed jointly with Canada through the International Pacific Halibut Commission.) In the mid-1990s, too, a moratorium was placed on the entry of new vessels into the bottom-fish industry.

The NPFMC devised even more far-reaching provisions for Alaska's important crab industry. In fact, few industries in the United States have ever been as highly regulated as the crab industry became. Because of over-fishing and, perhaps, natural environmental changes in Alaskan waters, Alaska's crab catch plummeted from 400 million pounds in 1991 to just 45 million pounds in 2000.

As a result of this drop, members of the NPFMC considered new ways to regulate the crab catch in 2001, and decided that a rationalization plan based on seasonal TACs and ITQs was more desirable than other alternatives. After holding numerous public hearings and modifying its original scheme, the NPFMC achieved rationalization with a plan implemented in 2005. The goal of this system was to stabilize Alaska's crab industry in the interest of making fishing sustainable and profitable.

Fishery officials set TACs for various crab species each fishing season. Those officials issued long-term ITQs (called Individual Fishing Quotas or IFQs in the Alaskan crab industry) to fishing boat owners. IFQs were guaranteed shares of the TACs, with the assumption being that the boats could actually catch the crabs. Processors, in turn, were guaranteed specific shares of the catch to freeze or can (these were called Individual Processing Quotas or IPQs).

The NPFMC divided the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island fisheries into eight districts and required that fishers deliver 90 percent of their crabs on a set schedule to designated processors in their districts. Representatives of arbitration organizations for fishers and processors determined prices for crabs at the start of each fishing season, with binding arbitration mandatory to break any deadlocks.

Only those boat owners and processors who could show that they had been commercially active in Alaska's crab industry for a number of consecutive years—four or five years for fishers and three or four years for processors, according to their districts—received IFQs and IPQs.

Defined by the NPFMC as "Eligible Crab Communities" (ECCs), nine communities dependent on crab fishing also received some guarantees that fishers and processors in their communities would receive quotas.

In 2008, the jury is still out on how well the crab-rationalization plan has worked. It certainly led, as expected, to consolidation. The number of boats fishing for crabs fell from 357 to 80, and the number of crew members dropped from roughly 1,500 to just 400.

Conservation is another matter. Whether the crab catch will recover remains in doubt. Several crab-fishery areas have been closed. The TAC for king crabs was lowered 15 percent in 2007 to encourage recovery, and the American catch that year came to only 15.5 million pounds.

The Fishers' Lament

Fishers voiced many concerns as the NPFMC ended open access to Alaska's fisheries. Only established boat owners with ITQs could fish. Many women, who made up about 5 percent of the fishers in Alaska, and Alaskan Natives were left out. These two groups have had a harder time becoming boat owners because they have a more difficult time securing credit. Only a few boat captains and no crew members were guaranteed places in what was a shrinking group of fisheries participants.

These changes caused considerable dissatisfaction, especially in the crab fishery. In mid-2007, the trade journal Seafood Business noted: "In the Alaskan crab fishery, the fleet has been reduced by two-thirds, much to the dismay of Alaskan fishermen and crewmembers who didn't make the cut. The few who did, though, now have plenty of money to hire lobbyists."

Community-development concerns have arisen as well. Rationalization resulted in entire communities—except those nine designated as ECCs—being excluded from crab fishing. An anthropologist who studied the impacts of the crab-rationalization program on communities in the Aleutian Islands concluded, "The findings on direct impacts of crab rationalization on the study communities include loss of crab fishing crew jobs, fewer boats delivering crab, and lower sales for support businesses."

Some fishers were outspoken. "All those boat owners ended up with this quota and it was built by guys like myself; guys that were on deck all those years—they didn't get anything out of it." Another observed, "It was put together by a group of too many special interests which captured the fishery for themselves; it had nothing to do with the people that participated."

In April 2008, Terry Haines—a Kodiak city councilman, former deckhand, and member of Fish Heads, an advocacy group concerned about the impact of rationalization on communities—complained: "In the years since implementation of crab rationalization the council [the NPFMC] has done very little to look back at what happens to towns like Kodiak when you tie up two-thirds of the boats, suck 75 percent of the money out of the paychecks and make the free market illegal."

Even some boat owners who possessed IFQs lamented that their earlier free-and-easy way of life was vanishing, a victim of rationalization. Bart Eaton, a longtime king-crab fisherman, later a vice president of a major seafood processor-wholesaler, asked: "Do we really want a failsafe society? With regulations that tell you where to fish and when, guys feel more and more like they're spare gear in a big bureaucratic machine."

One captain and boat owner explained in 2008, "We are afraid of becoming hourly salaried workers with the adventure, traditions and romance of crabbing buried under pages of quotas and regulations. We do not want to be part of bureaucracy." He concluded, "The Bering [Sea] then is our last frontier. It is our Wild West, our Lonesome Dove, played out on waves."

Responding to community concerns and to changes in the FCMA, the NPFMC instituted a Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program in 2006-2007, which allocated "a percentage of all Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands quotas for groundfish, prohibited species, halibut, and crab to eligible communities."

Continued questioning led the NPFMC to review its crab-rationalization plan in early 2008. Members considered various ways by which "some community concerns could be alleviated." They recognized, too, that "the benefits received by shareholders [those having IFQs] . . . have been at the expense of crew more than others" and that "the current program lacks mechanism for natural progression of crew in fishery from deck to wheelhouse to vessel ownership."

Meanwhile, the state of Alaska and several private banks implemented programs to help individuals and communities acquire fishing quotas, through the formation of fishing cooperatives, for example. How successful they will be remains to be seen.

The Tale of Two Fisheries

The different fates of the American fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic and Alaska reveal complexities in fishing and over-fishing.

Over-fishing has been most common in the long-established fisheries of the Northwest Atlantic, such as those for cod and blue-fin tuna. The application of industrial fishing methods after the Second World War intensified large-scale fishing that had begun much earlier. Americans and Canadians finished the over-fishing begun by others. The failure of the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council] and international bodies to provide adequate regulation made an already bad situation worse, leading to the near-demise of Atlantic cod and blue-fin tuna as commercial fish stocks.

Farther north in Alaskan waters, regulatory results were mixed, but generally more positive. Crabs suffered from over-fishing, an initial lack of adequate regulation by the NPFMC, and ecological changes. Even with the implementation of a rationalization plan, the future of crab fishing is uncertain. Rationalization plans do seem to have placed fishing for major commercial species of bottom fish on a sustainable basis. Pacific cod are not going the way of their Atlantic cousins.

Alaskan success has been recognized internationally. By mid-2008, the Marine Stewardship Council, a well-respected British environmental body, had certified only twenty-six fisheries around the globe as being conducted in sustainable ways. Impressively, this small list included all Alaskan pollock, salmon, halibut, and sablefish, and most Alaskan cod. The only other American fishery to achieve such status was Oregon pink shrimp.

The different outcomes of New England and Alaska are explained by certain advantages that members of the NPFMC had over their counterparts in the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council]. The Alaskan management council had access to more advanced scientific information—a major reason the NEFMC [New England Fishing Management Council] failed is that marine science did not always provide it with reliable information. The NPFMC also had generally younger, more adaptable fisheries. It also could learn from the cautionary tale of what had happened to the Northwest Atlantic cod.

From bonanza, open-access industries, in just a generation most of Alaska's fisheries have become among the most highly regulated industries in the United States.

In Alaska, the need for stability and permanence trumped earlier desires for quick gains and big bucks, making most of the state's fisheries sustainable, but also limiting opportunities for some individuals and entire communities. Such trade-offs, it is likely, will become increasingly common in a world of scarce natural resources.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

ECC: eligible crab community

FCMA: Federal Fishery Conservation and Management Act

NEFMC: New England Fishery Management Council

NPFMC: North Pacific Fishery Management Council

IFQ: individual fishing quota

ITQ: individual transferable quota

IPQ: individual processing quota

TAC: total allowable catch

Audio Version of Article
Suggested Reading

Clover, Charles.   End of the Line.  New York, 2006.

Ellis, Richard.  The Empty Ocean. Washington, D.C., 2003.

Johnson, Terry.  The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Fairbanks, 2003.

McCloskey, William.  Their Fathers' Work. New York, 1998.

Roberts, Callum.  The Unnatural History of the Sea. Washington, D.C., 2007.

Safina, Carl.  Song for the Blue Ocean.  New York, 1997.

Woodward, Colin.  Ocean’s End. New York, 2000.