PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — An important fish species caught for centuries by East Coast fishermen is facing overfishing, and regulators have slashed catch quotas by more than 80% to prevent the fish population from collapsing.
Haddock is one of the most popular Atlantic fish and a favorite for fish and chips and other New England seafood dishes.
But fewer haddock will be caught in New England this year after regulators cut catch quotas. A recent scientific review found that the haddock stock in the Gulf of Maine was unexpectedly declining, meaning catch quotas for the fish were unsustainably high, federal fisheries managers said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month added the Gulf of Maine haddock stock to its overfishing list. The New England Fishery Management Council, a regulatory agency, has lowered catch limits on the fish in an effort to halt overfishing, agency spokesman Allison Ferreira said.
However, many fishermen said the rating doesn’t match what they see on the water, where haddock seems to be in abundance. And the federal government’s warning comes as more fishermen in New England rely on haddock than in previous decades due to the collapse of other fish species, such as Atlantic cod.
“We seem to find plenty, but they can’t,” said Terry Alexander, a Maine fisherman who fishes for haddock and other species. “It’s a disaster, that’s it. A total, complete disaster.”
The Fisheries Management Board has ordered an 84% cut in catch quotas for the current fishing year, which started on May 1. The amendment applies to fishers harvesting haddock in the Gulf of Maine, a body of water off the coast of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Fishermen are also harvesting from Georges Bank, a fishing ground to the east where quotas have also been cut for this year, including adjacent areas overseen by Canadian officials who have made big cuts of their own.
Americans are likely to still find haddock available despite the cuts, since most of it is imported, according to 2021 federal data. Some countries that export haddock are also cutting their quotas this year. But recent reduction announcements by major exporters like Norway have been much lower than in the Gulf of Maine, and they represent a much larger share of global fish stocks.
Declining fish stocks threaten economies, food security and cultures around the world. So says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations more than a third of the world’s fish stocks are overfished and the number of unsustainable fisheries is increasing. However, the health of fish species varies considerably from region to region. Some, like American lobsterhave grown in catch volume in recent decades.
The catch of haddock in the US has fluctuated over the past century. In the early 1950s, more than 150 million pounds (70 million kilograms) were caught each year. Overfishing caused catches to drop to less than a million pounds (450,000 kilograms) a year by the mid-1990s, and rebuilding efforts followed. In recent years, catches have ranged from 12 million to 23 million pounds (25 million to 50 million kilograms).
Haddock is caught by the same fishermen who target other benthic fish such as cod, saithe and flounder. They are harvested at a much higher volume than all those fish.
The fish is one of the few profitable species on the East Coast, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. He says losing the ability to catch them is a great hardship for the industry.
“I don’t think this stock is in trouble, and I think the fishermen are in trouble because of it,” Martens said. “With this significant budget cut coming up, that’s a big blow.”