The Great Haddock Revival
In the near-empty seas, one species has surged back to life. Can the others follow?
filmy, pink dawn has just slipped above the horizon as the F/V Stormy Weather arrives at the fishing grounds. After a two-hour cruise from port in Hampton Beach, NH, the vessel has reached the southwest corner of Jeffrey's Ledge, a winding offshore glacial deposit—and prime fish real estate—that stretches from Massachusetts to Maine. Captain Carl Bouchard and deckhand Paul Kuncho unfurl an intricate knitwork of colorful rope. The two men have performed this maneuver countless times, and they release the trawl net with a minimum of spoken words. Within 15 minutes the net has been deployed into the cold, dark water. The captain brings the Stormy Weather up to towing speed. Kuncho heads below deck to heat some sausage breakfast sandwiches in the microwave. Another day of fishing has begun.
Since the 17th century, fishing has been an integral part of New England's economy and its culture. But 400 years of scooping fish from the sea have taken a toll, and the effects of the global overfishing crisis1 are as evident in New England as they are anywhere in the world. Stocks of Atlantic cod and other fabled New England groundfish species have plummeted. Spiny dogfish—voracious, 5-foot-long sharks detested by fishermen—have proliferated in the niche vacated by the predatory fish. But unlike predators such as cod, which feed on a smorgasbord of marine creatures, dogfish are primarily fish eaters. So as groundfish stocks have withered in the Gulf of Maine, lobsters and crabs have surged in abundance.2 In the eastern Gulf, fishermen have become dangerously dependent on lobster, which now accounts for 90 percent of their seafood landings. Elsewhere in New England, groundfishermen are barely scraping by.
According to the law governing the nation's fisheries, conservation and management efforts must prevent overfishing while achieving a continuous optimum yield from each fishery. The reauthorized law, which was signed in 2007, requires the majority of stocks be rebuilt by 2014. It will be an uphill battle.3,4
The New England Fisheries Management Council regulates fishing from Connecticut to Maine, from the coast to 322 kilometers offshore. In that zone, 13 of the 19 groundfish stocks, consisting of 12 different species, are currently overfished. In fisheries-speak, that means their spawning stock biomass is less than half that deemed necessary for a sustainable fishery. Pollock and pout, halibut and hake, yellowtail and winter flounders—nearly all the region's groundfish remain in a world of hurt. Except one.
A decade ago, haddock were more cautionary tale than success story. A beloved staple of seafood chowders and fried-fish sandwiches, haddock were continuously overfished from the 1930s through the mid-1990s, says Jon Brodziak, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) stock assessment scientist now at the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawaii. "That's a long period of sustained overfishing," he notes. Eventually, the stock collapsed. Between 1965 and 1995, haddock abundance on Georges Bank, east of Cape Cod, declined more than 100-fold.5 "In the early 1990s, it reached rock bottom," Brodziak says. But today, despite the odds, haddock stocks are soaring.
"Haddock is a bright spot," says John Annala, chief scientific officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and a member of the Management Council's Scientific and Statistical Committee. Now scientists and fishermen are asking whether the haddock's dramatic recovery is a management triumph, a biological fluke, or simply a stroke of good luck. And if experts can replicate what went right with this species, could others be pulled back from the brink? For now, Annala says, "the jury is still out."
After an hour, Bouchard and Kuncho hoist up the net and spill a pile of flailing fish onto the deck. It's a calm, unseasonably warm day in early spring, and the fish glisten in the soft morning sun. Most of the catch is haddock, each around two feet long, their muscular silvery bodies marked with a distinctive black lateral line. Also in the mix are a handful of mottled brown cod, fatter and slightly longer than the haddock.
The Stormy Weather is an otter trawl, what fishermen call a "dragger," since the boats drag their nets just above the seafloor. Today Bouchard's dragger is both fishing boat and research vessel. Dave Beutel, a fisheries extension specialist with Rhode Island Sea Grant, is onboard testing a new trawl net designed to snare haddock and leave other species be. Beutel records the live weight of each species brought up in the first haul, including a few undersized lobsters and flounders that Kuncho then tosses back to the depths. After dropping the net for a second tow, Kuncho sets about gutting the haddock, throwing the disemboweled fish into a big blue tub of cold, bloodstained seawater.
Haddock, Melanogrammus aeglefinus, is a cousin of the cod's in the family Gadidae. Adult haddock stick close to the seafloor, feeding on benthic organisms such as crabs, mollusks, polychaete worms, sea urchins, and the occasional fish eggs and small fish. They spend much of their time at depths of up to 150 meters, moving into shallower waters in the springtime to spawn.
Two distinct haddock stocks occur in US waters: one on Georges Bank and one farther north, in the Gulf of Maine. Both are considered recovered. The Georges Bank stock in particular is flourishing, having reached more than twice the target spawning biomass needed for a sustainable fishery. When the last haddock assessment was conducted in 2008, says Elizabeth Brooks, a NMFS stock assessment scientist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, "they were well above where anyone expected them to be."
By all accounts, haddock partly owe their speedy recovery to a fortuitous quirk of biology. Every so often, a haddock population experiences a baby boom. The 2003 year class (as a single year's hatchlings are known) was phenomenal, especially on Georges Bank. Between 1995 and 2000, the average number of recruits, or fish surviving to age one year, was 22 million fish per year. The 2003 Georges Bank year class numbered 789 million. "It's the biggest ever observed as long as we've been keeping statistics," Brooks says. Haddock reach maturity between ages 1 and 4. The class of 2003 is now all grown up, and big enough to be legally eaten for dinner.
Luck likely played some role in that 2003 bonanza, says Graham Sherwood, an ecologist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Some researchers have suggested, for instance, that fortuitous current patterns allowed more haddock eggs to stay tucked safely on Georges Bank instead of washing out to sea. Still, the haddock population probably had to achieve a certain healthy size before such a huge year class was ecologically possible. "I think it was probably a combination of haddock building up that critical level of biomass, and then it became environment. Everything just sort of came in line and really favored those young fish," he says.
Favorable environmental factors alone can't account for haddock's revival, Brooks agrees. "Without that  year class, haddock were still headed in the right direction," she says. "I think it is a management success, because if you looked at the trajectory of spawning biomass from the 1990s on, you have a fairly consistent upward trend."
But determining which management efforts deserve the credit for haddock's comeback—and why the measures haven't been as successful for other groundfish species—is no small chore. Since 1994, commercial groundfishermen have been managed under a days-at-sea program that allows them to fish an ever-dwindling number of days each year. Nets must conform to regulation mesh sizes designed to retain adult groundfish while letting smaller fish swim free. Also beginning in 1994, haddock became subject to daily quotas called trip limits. (Trip limits for haddock were lifted in 2003, but remain in place for other overfished species, such as cod.)
On top of those measures are geographic restrictions. In 1994, the New England Management Council closed three large sections of Georges Bank to all boats capable of catching groundfish. In 1998 and then in 2002, two more areas were shuttered in the Gulf of Maine. Altogether, more than 20,000 square kilometers of ocean were closed to groundfishing. In addition to these permanent Marine Protected Areas, numerous seasonal rolling closures shut down huge tracts of fishing grounds during certain times of year. Groundfish tend to concentrate in these areas, so vessels fishing there are extremely efficient at catching them. Closing the areas is a straightforward way to reduce fishing pressure—and allow fish a greater chance to reproduce before winding up on a dinner plate.
Many researchers suspect that protected areas, in particular, gave haddock a necessary boost. Sherwood recently conducted an acoustic tagging study of haddock in Closed Area 1, on Georges Bank. He tagged 80 fish and ended up with data on about 50 of them, following their movements for 2 months. "What this study showed, I think quite definitively, is that haddock are very resident to the [closed] area," he says. "There was even a suggestion in the data that they go up to the edge of the closed area and turn back, kind of like an animal coming to the edge of the forest and then coming back in."
Other research suggests that haddock build up abundance in the protected areas before spilling over into legal fishing areas. In a recent study, NMFS scientist Steven Murawski and colleagues found that more than 70 percent of haddock catches by otter trawls occurred within 5 kilometers of the closed areas.6 On the strength of such evidence, Sherwood says, "We think that closed areas are beneficial to haddock. It's not definitive…but it's certainly consistent with the fact that they are using them to their advantage."
Ironically, part of haddock's good fortune comes from near failure, says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Ocean Process Analysis Lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Haddock were the first groundfish species to collapse in New England in the 1990s, he notes, thus management measures targeting haddock went into effect at least a year earlier than measures aimed at saving other species. "The closed areas were really best designed around haddock. They covered the nursery areas, areas of high productivity, and areas of high abundance better [for haddock] than they did for species like cod," he says. Together the protected areas and trip limits knocked down the fishing rate on haddock, allowing the stock to gradually rebuild its ranks. Then, when the environmental stars aligned in 2003, haddock were ready to take advantage of it in a big way.
All of this begs the big question: Can the same measures that worked for haddock work for other beleaguered fish stocks? And if so, what's taking so long? Unfortunately, says Brooks, "I don't know how generalizable the haddock success is."
Consider the Atlantic cod, perennially one of the most valuable New England groundfish, even in their current depleted state. Cod migrate greater distances than the more sedentary haddock, Sherwood explains, so are less likely to stay put and benefit from closed areas. Not all cod are created equal, however. "Within any given [cod] population, there are resident forms and migrant forms," Sherwood says. "If closed areas protect you from fishing, you're better off having a much more resident life history." He wondered if closed areas might be exerting selective pressures on cod, and is doing research to find out.
"We're comparing a whole pile of different parameters like growth rates, condition factors, diet, and body shape" between fish inside and outside the closed areas, he says. "In fact, body shape is the one that's coming up as most indicative of changes in life history." Migrant forms of cod have more streamlined body shapes, while sedentary forms tend to have deeper bodies and shorter heads. "We're seeing significantly more robust body shapes for cod inside the closed areas than outside," he says.
If his early findings pan out, they could have implications for rebuilding cod as well as other species in the Northeast. "If it is closed areas that are favoring haddock, we can only really expect fish species with similar life histories to benefit," he notes. "So cod as a whole aren't necessarily going to fit that bill, but a certain type of cod might. We might end up with a much more sedentary, resident form of cod." That could further complicate cod recovery, he notes, since migratory forms of fish typically produce more eggs than their sedentary siblings.
And therein lies one problem with managing 19 groundfish stocks under a single plan. What makes a good management strategy for one species may be ineffective—or even detrimental—to another. Further complicating the issue, of course, is the fact that stocks aren't static. They interact with one another and are affected by ecological conditions in ways that human scientists may not even be fully aware of. "There's so much environmental variability in the system," says Annala.
Despite these limitations, some lessons from haddock's comeback can be safely applied to other groundfish stocks, says Brodziak. Most important, he suggests, "Let's see what happens if we reduce fishing mortality." Though that point sounds obvious, stocks are still being fished well above sustainable levels, year after year. "The New England system is at a point where people are trying to extract as much as possible," he says. In 2007, Northeastern fishermen harvested more than 63 million pounds of groundfish, valued at $81.8 million. To Brodziak, that's too much. "I think going for the maximum yield from each stock is not a good goal."
That argument sounds familiar to UNH's Rosenberg. "The fundamental lesson is, it's not just a matter of planning for recovery. You actually have to get the fishing rate down below the [overfishing threshold]," he says. "In haddock we got the rate down. On cod we're still overfishing."
One of the reasons cod are still overfished, Rosenberg says, is the nature of the fleet. Cod are targeted by more boats, and by more diverse sectors of the fishery. Many small inshore boats target cod. The crowded inshore fishery is more difficult to manage than the smaller offshore fishery for haddock, he says. Still, he points out, the management plan is under continual revision. Measures such as rolling closures have been put into place to help cod and other species. "Anything that will decrease the fishing pressure at this point is beneficial to the stock," he says. "The problem is, we don't manage fish. We manage people."
What appear as "units of fishing effort" on paper are, in real life, the owners and operators of local fishing boats. This year, a full-time permit for groundfishing allows typical boats 39 days at sea a year. That's down from about 88 days in 2000. And it's even worse than it sounds, Bouchard says; in a large swath of New England waters, each day at sea is actually counted as two days toward a boat's total allotment. Effectively, a "full-time" permit allows many boats to spend just 20 days on the water. As opportunities to fish constrict, many seasoned fishermen have taken second jobs on land, or hung up their nets altogether.
So far, Bouchard has been able to stay in the game by leasing extra days and buying out additional groundfish permits from bankrupt and retiring colleagues. He's lucky. "Not everyone can do that," he says. "Unless you can, you're either a parttime business, or you're out of business." Short and stocky, dressed in an orange rubber jacket, a fleece earflap hat, and a full white beard, Bouchard's appearance conforms nicely to the fisherman stereotype. The 69-year-old began his career as a lobsterman before switching to groundfish trawling in 1989. "It used to be you'd go fishing when you wanted, where you wanted. Today you go where they tell you, when they tell you to," he says.
Short and stocky, dressed in an orange rubber jacket, a fleece earflap hat, and a full white beard, Bouchard's appearance conforms nicely to the fisherman stereotype. The 69–year–old began his career as a lobsterman before switching to groundfish trawling in 1989. "It used to be you'd go fishing when you wanted, where you wanted. Today you go where they tell you, when they tell you to," he says.
Over the last decade, he's become actively involved in cooperative research, a rising trend in fisheries science. Two decades ago, a scientist might have paid fishermen to take them out on their boats. Today, fishermen are conceiving of research projects, co-writing grants, and participating jointly in marine research. By design, the projects provide some extra revenue for fishermen while allowing them to take a more active role in creating a sustainable fishery. "Collaborative research is getting stronger and stronger," says Laura Skrobe, extension co-leader for fisheries programs at Rhode Island Sea Grant. "It's evolved to the point where the fishermen are the ones with the ideas."
To that end, Bouchard and Beutel are busy testing a net designed to cash in on the haddock boom without impacting cod. The Ruhle trawl was dreamed up by three Rhode Island fishermen and developed in partnership with Beutel and Skrobe. With traditional gear, it's hard to target haddock without snagging cod, and vice versa. "They inhabit the same areas, and they're [roughly] the same size and shape," explains Skrobe. The two species behave differently, however, when a net is bearing down on them.
Haddock swim upward when they encounter a net, while cod and other fish swim down. The Ruhle trawl is designed to exploit that difference. Upward-swimming haddock are captured in the small-mesh portion at the top of the net, while fish like cod swim down to freedom through large mesh openings. In tests on Georges Bank, the original Ruhle trawl significantly reduced bycatch of cod, yellowtail flounder, winter flounder, witch flounder, and American plaice.7 That net was designed for larger boats. Today the men are testing a smaller version more appropriate for draggers like Bouchard's 45-foot Stormy Weather. No one expects technology alone to fix the fishery. But, says Beutel, "this gear could be part of the solution."
After 400 years, the New England fishing industry is at a crossroads, and it will take certainty—and serious effort—to save it. A new regulatory program is slated to replace the days-at-sea system beginning next year. Under the proposed "catch share" system, groups of fishermen, called sectors, will receive an allotment of the total catch, and must decide how to divide it between themselves. Managers as well as scientists like Annala are cautiously optimistic about the new program. Still, he says, it will be an ongoing challenge to maintain all 19 stocks sustainably, in the face of ever-changing environmental conditions. "It's going to be a challenge to do it. I don't know if it's going to be ecologically feasible," he says. "I'm optimistic that the stocks will rebuild. The key issue is: will the industry survive?"
Correction (posted July 8): When originally published, this article stated that spiny dogfish are strictly fish eaters – they are, in fact, primarily fish eaters, but they do eat other creatures, as well.
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