Paper, and New Book, Investigate Decline
of Fish Populations off New England

Eight years after authorities responded to the collapse of groundfish populations off New England, there remains a strong difference of opinion among the scientific community, the fishing industry, and among the general public about how the crisis developed. A paper in the journal Coastal Management, noting that the collapse did not come abruptly but followed a continuous and serious decline in the groundfish catch from 1983 to 1993, argues that it was clearly "a consequence of the long-standing failure of fishery managers to solve problems of chronic overfishing associated with an open-access fishery."

In particular, the paper's authors argue that the groundfish collapse fits a model first postulated in a 1993 essay in Science by Don Ludwig, Ray Hilborn, and Carl Walters. This model, which Ludwig and colleagues termed the "ratchet effect" and which the authors of the new paper dub "Ludwig's Ratchet", "dismissed natural science as having any significant influence on renewable resource conservation. Instead, [the model's authors] argued, a series of political and economic imperatives drives the system in a downward spiral."

Such imperatives, say the authors of the Coastal Management study, "drive fisheries to overcapitalize and overexploit despite scientific evidence that stocks are declining. When the fishery is no longer economically viable, governments provide financial assistance to minimize economic hardship. When stocks increase there is another rush to invest, and the cycle repeats itself."

The history of groundfish management in New England, they say, "conforms well to this model. Optimism among fishers and government in 1977 stimulated successive rounds of investment that built up excessive fishing capacity despite warnings from scientists that stocks were becoming weaker. Management regimes designed by the New England Fishery Management Council were ineffective in constraining fishing effort. Collapse of the stocks has led to severe restrictions on fishing and to government assistance."

The paper details, step-by-step, the developments which led to the groundfish collapses, and proposes a series of measures by which similar events could be avoided in the future. In particular, it notes that whereas over "the past century, science, management, and harvest have evolved into three separate and largely independent solitudes," the "recent evolution of resource management theory has emphasized a new integration of these activities under the banner of ecosystem-based management." Such integration of science, management, and harvesting through ecosystem-based management "appears to be the most promising avenue of escape from Ludwig's ratchet."

Meanwhile, the collapse of the New England fisheries is the subject of a new book, which examines the "virulent disagreement between government scientists and fishermen over how many fish are in the sea, and therefore over how many should be caught." In The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery, author David Dobbs chronicles the evolution of the crisis, and sketches portraits of fishers, scientists and others involved in the debate. Dobbs agrees with the authors of the Coastal Management paper that had the New England Fishery Management Council responded to scientists' warnings by "imposing reasonable restraints, it could have prevented the whole mess with much less sacrifice by those who fished." However, scientists must also take some of the blame, for failing to make proper use of the "vast knowledge held by the fishing community." Science that respected that knowledge "would have stood a far better chance of persuading fishermen to restrain their fishing."

Sources: T. Hennessey and M. Healey. 2000. Ludwig's Ratchet and the collapse of New England groundfish stocks. Coastal Management 28: 187-213. D. Dobbs. 2000. The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Stuggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, xv+206pp.

Contact: M. Healey, Institute for Resources and Environment, and Department of Earth and Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T IZ3. E-mail:; Lea Kleinschmidt, Island Press. E-mail: