Will the Fish Return?
A series of immense banks—plateaus submerged in relatively shallow ocean waters—stretches from Newfoundland to southern New England. At the southwestern end of this chain lies Georges Bank, where vast numbers of fish feed and grow. Legend has it that the first European sailors found cod so abundant that they could be scooped out of the water in baskets.
Until the last decades of this century these banks were one of the world's richest fishing grounds—until overfishing on a massive scale brought many fish populations, including cod, haddock, and halibut, to the brink of commercial extinction. Several parts of Georges Bank have been closed to commercial fishing until further notice, and scientists are monitoring the seabed to see how fast it recovers. Recent legislation that requires fisheries to protect marine habitat should provide Georges Bank some breathing room.
Fishermen presume that the damage from overfishing is temporary, but the scientific outlook is far from certain. Trawling—pulling nets across the ocean bottom—is inherently destructive, and its long-term effects on marine ecosystems are unknown. In 1990 and 1991, after a fivefold increase in forty years, the annual global catch began to decline. Says Dr. Jeff Cross of the National Marine Fisheries Service, "We're just too good at catching fish."