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.Continued...