Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Overfishing: Managing North Atlantic Fisheries

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On North America’s northeastern coastline, fishing is a way of life. Entire communities in coastal New England states of the United States and in Canada’s Atlantic provinces depend on the fishing industry for their survival. In New England—stretching from Connecticut northward to Maine—686 vessels landed 76 million live-weight metric tons (mt) of cod, haddock, flounder, and other groundfish (a group of 20 stocks of bottom-dwelling fish) in 2008—earning an estimated $85 million.

But this ocean bounty has a long and complex history, and overfishing in recent decades has seriously depleted many historically significant stocks. To ensure the continued viability of both fish and fishermen, the U.S. and Canada are working together to find a balance between conservation and profit.

One example of transnational resource management began in 1998, with the establishment of the Canada-U.S. Transboundary Resource Assessment Committee and later, the Transboundary Management Guidance Committee (TMGC). The committee allows for non-binding guidance to be provided on fishery management as part of an informal bilateral agreement. Authorities in both governments recognized that only by working together could they address the problems associated with major declines in stock sizes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Both countries had much at stake in finding common ground. Fish don’t recognize borders, and the rich North Atlantic fishing grounds extend from the Georges Bank region of New England to beyond the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. Revenue in the jointly managed area totaled $42 million in 2008, and the catch of just three stocks brought in $8.6 million. That year 147 U.S. vessels made 1,273 trips, catching 501 mt of cod, 1,649 mt of haddock and 1,531 mt of yellowtail flounder. The Canadian fishery caught 1,529 mt of cod, 14,815 mt of haddock and 158 mt of yellowtail flounder.

The U.S. has legislative tools for rebuilding the fishery. The 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (amended in 1996 and 2007), for example, requires that “overfished” stocks be placed under rebuilding plans to return to healthy levels within 10 years. The Canada-U.S. effort under the TMGC was designed to provide complementary coordination in this effort.

Under this system, representatives from each country meet annually to allocate catch limits for these stocks using a formula based on historical catch percentages and current resource distribution. The decade-old U.S.-Canada agreement—seen by both sides as an effective tool for optimizing harvests—has enabled each country to follow their respective management plans. But a major snag in 10 years of collaboration arose over 2010 catch levels for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.

In 2009, the U.S. proposed a harvest level in accordance with its formal rebuilding plan for the stock, which under Magnuson could not be exceeded. Meanwhile, the Canadians, who were not restricted by the U.S. rebuilding plan, cited increases in stock size and low fishing levels as justification for a higher catch threshold. The two sides came to an impasse: U.S. laws offered no flexibility, and the Canadians would not agree to what they considered artificially low catch limits. Ultimately, each country unilaterally adopted limits, placing the advantages of joint management in peril.

This disagreement exhibits the challenges of a non-binding agreement in a complex regulatory environment. However, some binational fishing agreements do have the force of treaties: the U.S.-Canada International Pacific Halibut Commission (1923), which regulates halibut catch levels in western Canadian and U.S. waters, is a success and could serve as a model for future agreements. By law, Magnuson-Stevens has provisions that would permit other international agreements, including treaties, to create greater flexibility in rebuilding plans.

Another development complicating efforts to improve joint fishery management is an ongoing transition in the groundfish industry to a management system known as “sectors.” Here, self-organized groups of fishermen get absolute allocations of stocks. This is projected to change fishing behavior and other characteristics of the fleet. The monitoring of groundfish fleets at sea is also increasing and will provide for more accurate assessments of catch levels.

Across industries, international agreements must work within complex physical, social and regulatory environments to stay relevant. But an effective agreement is especially critical at a time of fishery management transition and overall economic hardship.

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