Significance: The American fishing industry expanded in response to the growing popularity of seafood, but many of the areas rich in seafood have become overfished. As fisheries decline, the world fish supply will decrease, driving up prices and rendering a significant, nutritious part of the human diet inaccessible to many people.
In 2008, the American fishing industry comprised twenty-five thousand commercial fishing vessels, seven hundred fish processors, twenty-eight thousand distributors, and seventy-three thousand employees, and it generated annual revenue of $14 billion. On average, Americans ate about twelve pounds of seafood annually. Despite these impressive numbers, the commercial fishing industry in the United States is in decline. As America’s population increases, there is a greater demand for both fresh and frozen fish, as well as fishmeal products. Large investments in fishing fleets during the 1970’s and 1980’s, speculators demanding record annual harvests, and government subsides helped increase marine harvests for many years, but in many fishing regions, harvests quickly began to exceed estimated sustainable yields. The end result of this process was that for too many years, too many fishing fleets were chasing too few fish, until stocks collapsed and fishing businesses began to go bankrupt.
Many fisheries traditionally harvested by American fishing fleets have been decimated, including haddock, capelin, Atlantic cod, Atlantic herring, Pacific perch, rockfish, red snapper, California sardines, Atlantic salmon, and Pacific salmon. Industrialized fishing has literally destroyed some of the most productive fisheries in the world. To compensate for declines in traditional fisheries, harvesting of other species has increased, often at no sustainable rates. The United States has begun actively restricting commercial fishing, thereby eliminating thousands of jobs.
The collapse of fisheries along North American coasts is not entirely the fault of U.S. fishing fleets. For many years, foreign fishing fleets have also overfished U.S. waters. In 1976, the U.S. government enacted the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and in 1983, it established the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, all but ending exploitation of U.S. waters by foreign vessels. However, the result of removing foreign fishing boats from U.S. waters was a 40 percent increase in domestic commercial fishing boats and a 60 percent increase in employment rates in the U.S. commercial fishing industry. Essentially, foreign overfishing was replaced by domestic overfishing. By 1998, the U.S. government reported that for three hundred species of fish for which it had data, one hundred were being fished beyond sustainable yields. As fuel costs continue to escalate, many smaller fishing businesses will be forced out of existence.
The Georges Bank, off the coast of New England, was once one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Stocks of flounder, haddock, and cod there fell so low in 1992 that their harvest was banned. Rockfish have become so endangered that the United States enacted an emergency ban on bottom fishing in 2003. Pacific salmon stocks have become so low that a ban on their commercial harvest was established in 2008. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 required overfishing to be eliminated by 2011 for all domestic fisheries.
Overfishing is not the only threat to U.S. and world fisheries. Environmental pressures, pollution, and destruction of near-shore nursery grounds affect North American fishery productivity and thus the livelihood of fishermen. Additionally, climate change seriously affects commercial fishing, as warming surface waters alter currents and shift plankton populations. The use of artificial industrial fertilizers in U.S. agriculture also contributes to the problem, because the chemicals that make up these fertilizers eventually wash out to sea, nourishing algae and creating blooms that rob the water of oxygen. As a result, vast “dead zones” in which fish cannot survive have been created in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere.
Blum, M. C., and E. L. Bodi. The Northwest Salmon Crisis: A Documentary History. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1996.
Gimbel, K. Limiting Access to Marine Fisheries: Keeping the Focus on Conservation. Washington, D.C.: Center for Marine Conservation, 1994.
Rogers, R. The Oceans Are Emptying: Fish Wars and Sustainability. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995.
See also: agribusiness; Alaska purchase; Beef industry; Canadian trade with the United States; Fur trapping and trading; Hurricane Katrina; U.S. Department of the Interior; Pork industry; Poultry industry.