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The Sorry Story of Georges Bank

What's a Bank?

A bank is a huge shoal—a plateau submerged in relatively shallow ocean waters. A series of immense banks stretches from Newfoundland to southern New England on the edge of the North American continental shelf. The northernmost banks off Newfoundland and Labrador are called the Grand Banks. Georges Bank is an oval-shaped bank, 240 km long by 120 km wide, that lies at the southwestern end of this chain. It is 120 km off the coast of New England and is larger than the state of Massachusetts. Georges Bank is more than 100 m higher than the sea floor of the Gulf of Maine that lies just north of it. During the last Ice Age, when the sea was much lower, Georges Bank was part of the North American mainland.

About 11,500 years ago, the sea rose high enough to isolate the area, creating Georges Island. It was home to many large prehistoric mammals, including walruses, mastodons, and giant sloths, traces of which are sometimes found in fishing nets. They died out around 6,000 years ago, when the water level rose further to submerge the island and turn it into Georges Bank.
A prime breeding and feeding grounds for fish and shellfish, in particular cod, haddock, herring, flounder, lobster, scallops, and clam, these North American banks are one of the world’s most important fishing resources.

Why is the Fishing So Good at Georges Bank?

Georges Bank is a particularly productive continental shelf. The cold, nutrient-rich Labrador current sweeps over most of the submarine plateau, and meets the warmer Gulf stream on its eastern edge.

The mingling of the two currents, along with sunlight penetrating the shallow waters, creates an ideal environment for tiny sea creatures—phytoplankton (photosynthetic algae) and zooplankton (tiny free-floating creatures such as krill)—to flourish, attracting an entire ecosystem of marine animals. On Georges Bank, phytoplankton grow three times faster than on any other continental shelf. They feed the zooplankton, which are then eaten by the larvae of vast numbers of fish such as cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder. Georges Bank is home to more than 100 species of fish, as well as many species of marine birds, whales, dolphins and porpoises. The combination of tides and the Labrador current create a clockwise flow around the perimeter, circulating eggs and larvae throughout the Bank.

The structural diversity of the seabed plays an important part in the abundance and distribution of different marine species. Fifteen huge canyons descend from the southern half of the Bank. Their craggy walls, out of reach of fishing gear, house many kinds of fish and shellfish. Coarse sediment, originally transported to the bank by glaciers, has been shaped by changes in sea level and the ongoing action of tidal and storm currents to form a variety of marine habitats. For instance, a rough sea bottom provides juvenile cod with protection from predators and also shelters the smaller organisms which are their optimal food sources. Strong tidal currents sweeping over gravel beds on the eastern edge of Georges Bank create ideal spawning grounds for herring, whose eggs are laid on the bottom and require clean, oxygenated water to hatch.

The Basque Secret

The first Europeans to discover these rich fishing grounds were the Basques, a fiercely independent people from northern Spain. They had salt, which they used to preserve the fish, and by the year 1000 they had established an international trade in salted cod. The Basques kept the location of their fishing grounds a secret for over 500 years, but in 1497 Giovanni Caboto, a Genovese known by the Anglicized version of his name, John Cabot, undertook a voyage for Henry VII of England. Searching for a northern spice route, Cabot instead found 1000 Basque fishing vessels, rocky shores ideal for salting and drying fish, and waters teeming with fish. A legend swiftly grew that the fish were so abundant that they could be scooped out of the water in baskets. Cabot named the place New Found Land and claimed it in the name of England. Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano discovered Georges Bank in the early 1500s and named it Armelline Shoals after a papal tax collector. In 1605, English colonists renamed it for St. George.

The Cod Trade Grows

“Fishing opened up in Newfoundland with the enthusiasm of a gold rush,” writes Mark Kurlansky in Cod,, his book about a fish that changed the world. By the mid-16th century, sixty per cent of all the fish eaten in Europe was cod, and that remained the case for over two hundred years. It was the European hunger for cod that built Boston and turned New England into an international commercial center by the 18th century. Catches of cod and other fish off Georges Bank were so large that the British market became saturated, so Americans expanded to other areas. One was the West Indies, where there was a demand for low-grade salted fish to feed slave laborers. This trade grew when the Gloucester schooner, a fast, two-masted vessel, shortened the sailing time between Georges Bank and the Caribbean in the early 1700s.

In the wake of the American Revolution, fishing rights were hotly disputed. In 1782, the British granted New England fishing rights on the Grand Banks, but these were rescinded after the War of 1812 and remain a source of tension between the United States and Canada to this day.

New Tools for Bigger Catches

The first sign that Georges Bank fish stocks were not inexhaustible was the near disappearance of halibut around 1850, after an intense period of overfishing. The advent of modern fishing technology in the 1900s spelled trouble for many other species.

Well into the 20th century, Georges Bank had been fished using the same tools and techniques that the first settlers had employed: small boats, propelled by sail or oars and fished with handlines, and a single baited hook (perhaps two if a spreader was used) let down with a weighted line and reeled in by hand.

In Europe, on the other hand, where competition and smaller catches provided more incentive, steam-powered trawlers—ships which drag fishing gear behind them—were in wide use by the 1880s.It was not until the 1920s that the technology crossed the ocean and a Boston trawler fleet developed. “Fish could now be pursued,” observes Kurlansky,and so they were, across ever-greater distances. The steam-powered otter trawl proceeded to decimate the Georges Bank haddock stock. Diesel power, introduced in 1928, further increased the ships’ efficiency.

The Birth of the Fish Stick

The other invention that transformed the fishing industry was the brainchild of Clarence Birdseye, the inventor of frozen foods. Birdseye moved to Gloucester in 1925 and founded the General Seafoods Company at a time when the international market for fresh fish, as opposed to cured or salted, was growing. Filleting machinery was introduced to New England in 1921. The fillets were frozen into blocks and sliced into strips, and fish sticks were shipped to a giant new market of consumers, many of whom never encountered fish in any other form.

After World War II, the advent of huge factory ships and the use of aircraft and sonar to spot schools of fish resulted in unprecedented commercial catches. Through the late ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s, fleets of factory ships from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Spain, Japan and elsewhere hauled in hundreds of millions of pounds of haddock and hake, sometimes only twenty km from shore. In an hour, a factory ship could haul in as much cod—around a hundred tons—as a typical 17th-century boat could catch in a season. Wishing to preserve its fish stocks for American fishermen, the U.S. passed the Magnuson Act in 1976. It established American jurisdiction over a 200-mile fishing limit and banned the foreign boats from U.S. waters. In 1984, under international arbitration, Canada was granted the northeast corner of Georges Bank, which lies within 200 miles of Nova Scotia, reducing New England fishing grounds. With the international factory ships gone, Canada and the U.S. missed the opportunity to restore a sustainable groundfish industry, choosing instead to exploit the resource themselves. Domestic fishing fleets expanded rapidly, and offshore commercial fisheries grew and prospered.

From Boom to Bust

At the same time, inshore stocks dwindled. Many Georges Bank fish populations declined, including cod, haddock, herring, and sea scallops. Local fishermen suspected that few fish were surviving to spawn on the Bank, a breeding ground for well over half of the most commercially valuable fish species. Although the government agencies reluctantly recognized that these stocks were declining, the fishermen’s concerns still found few listeners. The New England Council, which had been established by the Magnuson Act, was dominated by commercial fishing interests. Finally, in 1993, Canada declared a moratorium on fishing northern cod and placed strict quotas on other ground species. A 1994 National Marine Fisheries Service assessment of cod stock on Georges Bank found a drastic forty per cent decline over four years, and concluded that the fishing fleet was about twice the size that Georges Bank could sustain.

The waters had been rendered nearly devoid of the prime commercial species that had once filled them. Urgent measures were necessary. On December 7, 1994, officials closed 9600 square kilometers of fishing ground on Georges Bank. The ban was extended indefinitely in April, 1995, and still stands. A March 1997 update reported that while some stocks were beginning to grow again, groundfish were still being fished too hard to regain healthy levels. In January 1999, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole, Massachusetts reported a continued rapid decline in cod stock. Today, fishing continues in certain areas, but it is severely regulated.

An Uncertain Future

Fishermen presume that the damage from overfishing is temporary, but the scientific outlook is far from clear. Kurlansky quotes Ralph Mayo of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Woods Hole: “there is no known formula to predict how many fish—or in scientific language, what size biomass—are required to regenerate a population or how many years that might take.” In the meanwhile, species such as the skate have expanded rapidly in response to the changing species dynamics, with as yet unknown consequences for the Georges Bank ecosystem. Some have become new targets of commercial fishermen. Political pressure to loosen regulations is unending and heedless of nature’s timetable. New England fishermen grumble about boats lying idle along the New England coast. Conservationists fear that regulators will ease restrictions before populations are fully recovered. “The problem with the people out here on the headlands of North America,” observes Kurlansky, “is that they are at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.”

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