On fishermen’s trucks in coastal New England, a popular bumper sticker tells a grim story: “National Marine Fisheries Service: Destroying Commercial Fishermen and their Families Since 1976.”
It’s a great sound bite. And for men from New Bedford, Chatham, or Boothbay who have had to tie up their boats because of federal regulations, or withdraw from the fishery altogether to make ends meet, it rings painfully true. 1976 marked the moment when the National Marine Fisheries Service actively took over the regulation of fishing, and today’s fishermen have spent most or all of their careers chafing under catch limits, fishing ground closures, and rules about days at sea. As environmentalists and fishermen argue year after year about which population is suffering more—working fishermen or the fish they rely on—it is easy to assume that conflict is inevitable, and that fishermen and regulators have always been at each other’s throats.
Yet their relationship was once just the opposite. In fact, when the government first began to intervene in the key business of New England fisheries right after the Civil War, it was at the request of fishermen, who insisted that the government help them contend with declining fish stocks. The solutions they found to shore up fishermen’s livelihoods—sometimes passing regulations to restrict overfishing, but more often helping fishermen develop new technologies to fish harder—were effective in the short term, enabling the industry to survive to the present day. But through nearly all these years, the health and productivity of marine ecosystems continued their decline.
What rings loudly in today’s complaints, and in the tale told by those bumper stickers, is the notion that fishing has only recently been regulated, and shouldn’t be. But regulators and fishermen have a far longer and more complex relationship than that. The tragic drama over depleted stocks, and about overfishing and its consequences, has been playing out for more than 150 years. Regulators, scientists, and fishermen have taken different roles over the decades, sometimes playing the alarmists, other times resisting them. The consequences—fewer fish—have been the same. Today, making progress on the severely depleted fishery depends on looking much deeper into the history of this industry so key to the region’s past, and finding a way to collaborate once more.
During the 1880s, after several years of disastrous menhaden catches, fishermen and politicians concerned about overfishing banded together.
The fishermen who ply New England’s waters today are descendants of the longest continually operated enterprise in the New World. Commercial fishing in North America began in 1502, the year that transient English fishermen first took home cod from Newfoundland. By 1602, English fishermen had made their first forays into the Gulf of Maine, long before the Pilgrims; in fact, one of the first things the Pilgrims encountered after the Mayflower dropped anchor at Cape Cod was the grave of a European fisherman. By the American Revolution, Massachusetts-based fisheries had become the engine of economic growth driving the region’s prosperity.
The dominant technology was the same as it had always been—hand lines. Collectively, fishermen using hand lines caught an average of about 250,000 metric tons of cod every year from North American waters for centuries. But starting in the 1850s or ’60s, fishermen noticed signs of trouble. The same number of men, using the same gear, in the same place, for the same amount of time, were bringing home less. Fishermen complained of having to sail farther, a sign that stocks were declining.
In response, fishermen turned to more efficient technologies. Hand lining gave way to a new technology called long lining around midcentury. A hand liner tended only one to four hooks; that same man could set 400 hooks on a long line, multiplying his catching power exponentially. Seine nets, which had been small handmade devices since Colonial days, became much larger and started to be employed more frequently. The large, new, machine-made nets could encircle whole schools of mackerel, menhaden, or herring.
But catches continued to slide. In the face of declining stocks and increasing fishing pressure, fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts began to feel that they were going to need government help to save the industry. As early as 1839, fishermen from Martha’s Vineyard had told their state legislators “that the increasing scarcity of fish of every kind” required “legislative interference.” In 1857 and again in 1858, concerned fishermen from Swampscott requested that the Legislature ban the new long lines because they feared that otherwise “haddock would be as scarce as salmon.” Confronting new seine technology that swept up mackerel and menhaden with abandon, Jotham Johnson of Freeport asked the Maine Legislature to intervene in 1864. “If their is not sumthing don to put a stopt to this Slatter [slaughter], fare will to the fisheries in Mane.”
The government’s first move was to try to restock the ocean. In 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War, the director of the US Fish Commission made “restoration of our exhausted cod fisheries” a priority. Laboratories were established in Gloucester and Woods Hole to cultivate valuable fish such as cod, along with forage fish such as alewives. Technicians in the labs fertilized cod eggs taken from spawning fish, and released baby cod back into the ocean, much as fish and game technicians today stock streams with trout. The rationale was the same: If nature couldn’t make enough fish, Americans would help. Little was done to restrict overfishing, though Maine passed regulations to limit mackerel and menhaden seining in state waters.
Then, during the 1880s, after several years of disastrous menhaden catches, fishermen and politicians concerned about overfishing banded together. Despite most marine scientists’ insistence that the shortages weren’t serious, they convinced the US Senate Committee on Fisheries to recommend closing the spring menhaden season and to require larger mesh in menhaden nets, allowing smaller fish to escape. While Congress refused to limit business by passing such a law in 1884, the catastrophic failure of the mackerel fishery (then America’s second most valuable, after cod) a few years later pushed them to reconsider. Besieged by fishermen demanding restrictions to save the fishery, Congress enacted the United States’ first federal fishery laws in 1887, closing the mackerel fishery during the spring spawning season for five years.
Even as these laws took force, catches kept shrinking. Aided by government-funded scientists, fishermen turned to more efficient new methods. From long-lining, practice shifted to gill-netting during the 1880s, and finally to otter-trawling (or dragging), which ravaged the sea bottom and killed fish indiscriminately, during the 1910s. (After World War Two, sonar fish-finders would be introduced, along with polyester nets; eventually, by the 1970s and 1980s, skippers would rely on electronics to navigate precisely in pursuit of fish.)
Until well into the 20th century, fishing communities initially resisted each new technology. They knew that stocks were shrinking. Still, eventually they would give in, out of the need to make a living and to compete. Each new technology provided an avalanche of cheap fish, and wiped out awareness of how fish populations had declined.
By the height of the Great Depression, otter-trawling had become the norm; an editor of The Atlantic Fisherman noted that “we cannot feel but that our good friends, in protesting against the trawler, are bucking the inevitable.” Hauls were huge, as was damage to essential fish habitat and the food web. But by then, fishermen were also fighting to earn a livelihood in changed modern times. Fishing had become less central to coastal New England’s economy. Cheap imported fish was undermining local firms, and the federal government provided no protection from those imports. Relatively speaking, fishermen had lost considerable influence, status, and security since 1900, when they provided the model for Rudyard Kipling’s best-selling novel “Captains Courageous.”
The first act in the fisheries drama that we know came during the 1930s. When haddock stocks crashed, government biologists recommended larger mesh to give baby haddock a chance to escape. The industry felt cornered. It lashed out against the restrictions—though millions of pounds of baby haddock too small to market were being caught by Boston-based trawlers each year, and dumped dead into the sea. Still, until the 1970s, the government’s attitude toward the fisheries was largely laissez faire.
The turning point came in 1976. The Fishery Conservation and Management Act revolutionized the management of American fisheries, extending American sovereignty out 200 miles from shore and driving out foreign fishermen. American fishermen cheered that change. At the same time, the act turned over management of the fisheries to eight regional councils, planting the seeds for tensions to come.
In a flurry of Americanization, the number of boats fishing from New England rose dramatically, from 825 in 1977 to 1,423 in 1983. Federal tax policies encouraged fishermen to build more boats and fish harder, even as federal scientists predicted the collapse of stocks and implored managers to restrict harvesting. By 1991, when a federal judge’s ruling led the New England Fishery Management Council to reduce fishermen’s days at sea and close huge areas of the coastal ocean to fishing, scientists and fishermen were at each other’s throats. It was then that the “destroying commercial fishermen” bumper stickers made their debut, identifying the 1976 act as the moment when everything fell apart.
Lush marine ecosystems and a vibrant fishery were hallmarks of historic New England. They are probably achievable again, but not in our lifetimes. Depletion took centuries, not the 36 years that those bumper stickers suggest; recovery will not occur overnight.
Today, we face a long, protracted period of rebuilding coastal marine ecosystems. The good news is that rebuilding has been working, slowly but surely: Most insiders agree that fish stocks hit their lowest point in 1992. Despite simmering antagonism between fishermen and scientists, collaborations about gear, policies, and essential fish habitat have become more common than anyone 20 years ago would have imagined.
But beyond the sound bites, a genuinely historical perspective on changes in the sea reveals that it’s impossible to fix blame for the problems on one side, or even to separate the sides clearly at all. Years ago, it was government collaborating with fishermen that kept the fisheries alive, even booming—and that also, over many decades, created the tools to wipe out stocks of commercially valuable fish. What remains to be seen is whether such collaboration can now be equally effective in restoring them.
W. Jeffrey Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, is author of “The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail.”