Three hundred and ninety-four years ago, the crew of a small English ship returned from a summer spent exploring the Gulf of Maine, to report the discovery of fishing resources the likes of which it had never seen. In every harbor, crew members caught their fill of cod, haddock, and plaice, and found "that all fish, of what kinde soever we tooke, were well fed, fat, and sweet in taste." Lobsters "very great" could be collected from the shore, or gaffed from a small boat. Salmon choked the rivers, mussels covered the shores, and whales were seen everywhere.
Becalmed out of sight of land, a bored sailor tossed out a line and began hauling up five-foot long cod, one right after the other, as fast as he could get another hook to the bottom. Soon the whole crew was scrambling to haul up these "exceedingly great and well fed cod." One of the mates attached two hooks to a line and pulled up 10 fish in half as many tries, while others pulled up great fish that had snagged their tails or bellies on the hooks as they swam by. When the wind came up, Captain George Waymouth gave the order to set sail for England, but the other officers begged him "to suffer to take fish a while, because we were so delighted to see them catch so great fish."
Today those fish are gone, and the Gulf of Maine's bounty has been radically depleted.
You've probably heard the fisheries story by now. As boats and fishing technology have improved over the centuries, one species after another has been decimated, particularly in recent decades. New England's commercial haddock catch fell from 60,726 metric tons in 1965 to a mere 3,131 in 1999, a drop of 94.8%. The halibut catch fell by 92.3% during this period, the cod by 40%. Parts of Georges Bank have been closed since 1994, in an attempt to spark a recovery of these and other groundfish species. Fishermen started targeting previously undesirable species -- dogfish, wolffish, sea urchins, and juvenile eels -- only to see their numbers crash as well. Today, approximately two-thirds of all federally managed fish species in the Gulf of Maine are officially considered overfished, with another 25% "fully exploited."
An Ecological Crisis in the Gulf of Maine
And the decline of commercial fish stocks is but one symptom of a serious ecological crisis in the Gulf of Maine. Stresses from a wide range of human activities are eroding the Gulf's ability to sustain complex living communities. Farmers and developers have filled in salt marshes that are the nursery habitat for countless marine creatures. Open-ocean salmon aquaculture pens pollute bays with excessive amounts of fish feces and uneaten food. Ships collide with endangered right whales, while sewage and industrial pollutants have closed once-productive clam flats. Worst of all, fishing trawlers are clearly destroying critical bottom habitat over vast areas of the Gulf sea floor.
"Our ability to exploit the marine environment has way outstripped our ability to regulate and protect it," says Callum Roberts, Senior Lecturer in the Environment Department at York, England's University of York. "It's inevitable that once we developed methods to reach further and further into the sea, we would have to extend the regulatory framework we have on land to the sea."
Roberts is one of many scientists who believe that humans need to start regulating and protecting, not just individual species or fish stocks, but entire marine habitats, from the worms in the bottom muck to the corals, boulder fields, and kelp meadows that shelter fish, crabs, and other creatures.
The experience of other countries has shown...