Ecology of the Northeast US Continental Shelf

Human Dimensions


management closed areas in NES LME
Figure 1.
locations of 2005 commercial and recreational fishing trips
Figure 2.

The coast and ocean have been prominent in the history, culture, and economy of America for centuries. The cod fishery – dubbed America’s “first industry” - was a mainstay of the colonial economy and an important reason to fight England during the American Revolution for interfering with trade. Fisheries remained a vital source of food, economic production, and employment for families and local economies during the late 1800s, as well as places where young men learned skills that prepared them for war. But Spencer Baird (founder of the Woods Hole Laboratory) saw signs of local depletion near-shore. A century of growth in consumer demand and major technological advances in fishing power caused the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 and prevent foreign factory ships from exhausting stocks within a 200-nautical mile fishery conservation zone. This area is bigger than the 50 states combined and, in 1983, became the largest Extended Economic Zone in the world.

Despite more than two decades of domestic management and thousands of regulations, most U.S. fish stocks - including the once valuable Atlantic cod - were heavily depleted by the 21st century by a superabundance of vessels in combination with increased pollution. In most large urban communities, fisheries had long ago disappeared into the shadows of other coastal and ocean industries, particularly tourism and recreation, marine construction, and oil and gas production.

Institutional reforms that would better allocate resources among commercial, recreational, subsistence, fishing community and conservation sectors are a critical need. The reforms should be cost-effective, productive, flexible, and accommodating of unusual circumstances in the way they: (1) allow for a variety of uses, including by internalizing spillovers and competition for space; (2) facilitate growth of the marine economy by being open to alternative production arrangements; (3) regard natural resources and environment services as assets for long term use and preservation; (4) accommodate uncertainty and changes in ecosystems, the physical environment, technology, and peoples’ preferences; and (5) provide opportunity for individuals and local communities and businesses to improve their well-being.

Ecosystem based management (EBM) for spatially heterogeneous resources and users is being looked at favorably as a framework for these holistic objectives. Elements of an EBM have been incorporated in fisheries management in the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (NES LME) for several years. For example, in 1994, several areas on Georges Bank, Southern New England, and the Gulf of Maine were closed year-round to rebuild stocks of Atlantic cod and other groundfish, and seasonally to protect harbor porpoise from gillnets. Within a decade, the number of areas used to manage stock rebuilding and production, minimize by-catch, safeguard protected species such as mammals and turtles, allocate fishing opportunities spatially, and protect habitat exceeded a hundred. An illustration of current large-scale closure areas is provided in Figure 1. Shorter term seasonal closures are not included here.

EBM is a spatial management framework. Therefore, social scientists are obliged to learn about the spatial behavior of fishermen, such as the multitude of fishing trips taken by commercial and party/charter vessels in 2005 (Figure 2) and prepare more detailed analyses of the economic and social impacts of management actions. Fishing locations in the NES LME are obviously influenced by fishing gear and where to find target species, but they are also differentiated by port, vessel size, area closure constraints, gear conflicts, and resource claims such as in some of Maine’s lobster fisheries.

In the following sections, the role of humans in marine ecosystems is explored in the context of anthropological and economic considerations. We then place these considerations in a management context as we move towards ecosystem based management.

Further Reading

Hennessey, T.M. and J. Sutinen (Eds.) 2005. Sustaining large marine ecosystems: The Human Dimension. Large Marine Ecosystems Series (K. Sherman, Ed). No. 13.

Economic Considerations

old gran bank cod schooner
Figure 1.

Fishing - America’s “first industry” - played major roles in the nation’s economy, society, and politics for roughly three centuries. Cod was the basis of great wealth in New England beginning in 1620 when King James I granted monopoly rights to New England’s salt-cod trade to a consortium of merchants from Plymouth, England (Figure 1). The Pilgrim government used rents from leases to harvest mackerel, bass, and other publicly-owned fishery resources to fund public projects in the colony, including “free schools” beginning in 1671. The treaty negotiations to end the Revolutionary War were conditioned on stipulations that Great Britain would not interfere with fishing. Finally, Spencer Baird, first U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries, reminded Congress in 1873 of the continued economic and social value of fisheries in the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (NES LME) and the country:

USFC schooner Grampus
Figure 2.

“The importance to the United States of the fisheries on its coasts can scarcely be exaggerated, whether we consider the amount of wholesome food which they yield, the pecuniary value of their products, the number of men and boys for whom they furnish profitable occupation, the stimulus to ship and boat building which they supply, and, not the least of all, their service as a school for seamen, from which the merchant marine, as well as the Navy of the country, derive their most important recruits.”

The economic and social importance of the fisheries led to the establishment of the first permanent marine research laboratory in the nation in Woods Hole in 1885.  A fleet of specially designed research vessels was also commissioned to support fisheries research in the region, including the schooner Grampus (Figure 2), whose innovative design also served as a model for fishing vessels and reputedly was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s fishing schooner in Captains Courageous.

processing vessel and catcher vessels
Figure 3.

Commercial fishing has waned in economic importance relative to other marine and coastal industries over the last half century, but has stayed on the national agenda because of its local importance and cultural influence. The arrival of foreign fleets of factory vessels and catcher boats in the early 1960s galvanized action to protect fisheries and fishing communities from the onslaught as the distant water fleets were “vacuuming the seas of precious life and economic value” (Figure 3). Congress extended U.S. jurisdiction over fish stocks out to 200 nautical miles in the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. In addition to the Fishery Conservation Zone, the act created a system of regional fishery management councils which were assigned the authority to develop management plans (see Management).

The Commercial Fishery

commercial fishing gross revenues
Figure 4.
sea scallop and lobster values 1987-2010
Figure 5.

To illustrate the importance of commercial fishing in the NES LME and adjacent slope waters, we report data on gross dockside revenues (in nominal dollars) and number of fishing permits held by vessels from the years 1964 to 2009.

Combined revenues from oceanic and estuarine commercial fisheries increased six-fold during this period, from less than $200 million when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was implemented in 1976 to a peak in 2005 that still holds in 2010 of over $1.4 billion (Figure 4). Gross revenues from shellfish landings far exceed finfish payments dockside, but especially recently. In 2009, shellfish landed revenue was almost $950 million owing primarily to large gains in the Atlantic sea scallop fishery. In fact, sea scallops generated more revenue than lobster for the first time in 2005 when both species hit their highest value to date (Figure 5). The increased worth of scallops was due to access to dense beds of sea scallops inside the groundfish closed areas (first granted in 1999) and to an area management policy that includes scallop areas for growing out large sets of small scallops. Dockside revenue from sea scallops alone was $380 million in 2009, placing it first in the top-10 ranking: sea scallops, American lobster, blue crab, Atlantic salmon, surf clams, menhaden, hard clam, Atlantic cod, Atlantic herring, and ocean quahog. Two of these species are estuarine and, therefore, are not managed by FMPs (blue crabs and hard clams), and Atlantic salmon are cultured mostly in Maine.

When considered by gear type, lobster pots and traps (high crab catch) produced the greatest amount of total revenue in 2004, followed by otter trawl (a multi-species groundfish fishery) and sea scallop dredges (primarily a single-species fishery). Given the above discussion of results by species, this ordering of gear revenues speaks to the unspecialized nature of fishing gear to catch a variety of species, which is problematical for the single-species approach and managing for economic and social benefits. These three gear types in particular accounted for over half of the region's ex-vessel revenue.

The number of vessels in the region is a rough indication of the amount of fishing capital in the fisheries. In 2009, there were around 5000 vessels actively fishing under federal fishing permits in our region. Combining vessels with their permit ownership provides information that is relevant to ecosystem based management. From the regulator’s standpoint, permit and related data on effort or harvest allocations are important for evaluating latent effort, harvest capacity, and total capitalization, as well as for tracking and measuring the impacts of policies such as limited access and vessel buybacks. However, harvesters see advantages in owning multiple permits which allow them to change gear seasonally or over much longer periods of time in response to income risks that arise from changes in the relative abundances and prices of species, and from regulatory actions to rebuild stocks and protect habitat and bycatch species that constrain some fisheries. The versatility afforded by multiple permits also facilitates adopting technological changes in gear efficiency that change profit options, preserve future options, and maintain qualifications for potential windfall profits in fisheries that adopt rights-based allocations.

The total number of FMP permits issued each year since 1987 is illustrated in Figure 6. The data begin with the year 1987 when permits were renewed annually instead of being issued in perpetuity. (Permits for Atlantic tuna are excluded from the figure because the scale overwhelms other categories.) The total number of permits peaked in the year 1992 at close to 6500 when the New England Council was deliberating qualification for limited access in both the multi-species groundfish and sea scallop fisheries. Although somewhat smaller now due to disqualifications and failures to renew, the total number of unique permits in the region remains around 5000.

This result warrants a closer look at the permit data. Within each permit, there are from 1 to 10 categories. Some indicate limited access versus open access, or recreational versus commercial. Other categories (e.g., lobster) are defined to allow vessels to fish in certain areas. Under some permits it is possible to hold multiple categories (e.g., both recreational and commercial in summer flounder, multiple areas in lobster). Under other permits, categories are mutually exclusive (e.g., Atlantic herring), so that any one vessel can have only one category of permit within that fishery. Counting the different categories as a separate permit we find that half of all permitted vessels (not necessarily active) held at least 7 different permit/category combinations, while 22% of all vessels held more than 13 different permit/category combinations.

To highlight more specifically the opportunities to switch target species, we counted multiple categories within an FMP as only one permit. It is noted, however, that squid, mackerel and butterfish are all grouped together because they are regulated as categories within the single Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish permit. More than 1500 vessels had only one permit when examined conservatively, but 2500 of the 6033 vessels were permitted in 2-9 fisheries, and the remaining 2000 vessels had permits in 10 or more fisheries.

Regional Economic Impacts of Commercial Fisheries

The economic contribution of the seafood industry to the overall economy in the northeast extends well beyond simply measuring the income, employment, and dockside sales of commercial harvesting activities. Value-added businesses that distribute and process seafood and retail-level establishments that sell seafood also contribute to the regional economy’s employment and income base. Additionally, beyond these direct effects are the indirect effects that result through intersectoral linkages to non-fisheries sectors. For example, seafood processors purchase goods and services to maintain and operate their facilities, while businesses that provide the goods and services must purchase inputs from their suppliers in order to conduct these transactions. In turn, these suppliers must purchase inputs from their own suppliers, triggering a whole series of additional indirect multiplier effects. This cascading series of industry-to-industry multiplier effects and the cycle of consumption spending induced by all the incomes generated in these economic activities contribute to the economy’s employment and income base and continue until all of the multiplier effects are derived from outside the NES LME.

In an earlier analysis, the economic contribution of the seafood industry in the NES LME was estimated by applying the value of ex-vessel sales in 2003 for three production-based seafood sectors (commercial harvesters, wholesale seafood dealers, and seafood processors) by the appropriate model-generated multipliers. The estimated dockside value of commercial harvesting sales in 2003 was combined with information on applied commercial fishing sector multipliers, the value of wholesale seafood dealer sales, and the value of seafood processing sales. The sum of these three impact assessments is assumed to represent the economic contribution of the seafood industry in the NES LME.

Regional impacts were estimated for sales, personal income, and employment. Sales reflect total dollar sales generated from the production of seafood by commercial harvester, wholesale seafood dealers, and seafood processors. Personal income represents wages, salaries, benefits, and proprietary income generated from the sale of seafood by these three seafood producing sectors. Employment includes both full-time and part-time (including seasonal) workers generated from the production of seafood by the three producing sectors and is expressed as total jobs.

vessels issued permits
Figure 6.

The economic contribution of the seafood industry to the economy in the northeast was estimated to be $5.1 billion in total sales by commercial harvesters. Wholesale seafood dealers and seafood processors in 2003 generated an additional $3.1 billion in indirect and induced sales in the northeast. The total sales of these three seafood producing sectors also resulted in an additional $2.2 billion in income for the NES LME. Of the total income, $1.1 billion was directly received by employees of the commercial harvesting sector, the wholesale seafood dealer sector, and the seafood processing sector. In terms of employment, approximately 76,530 jobs in the northeast were dependent upon the production of seafood by commercial harvesters, wholesalers, and processors (Figure 6).

Recreational Fisheries

employment in commercial fisheries
Figure 7.
recreational fishing 2005
Table 1.
fishing docks
Figure 8.

Recreational fishing is a popular pastime and source of food for many people, and a business for the charter and party boat industry (Figure 7). According to preliminary data published by the NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Recreational Fishing Statistical Survey (Table 1), nearly 5 million anglers fished in the ocean during 2005, either from shore, on private (Figure 8) or rental boats, or by hiring the services of the party boat and charter boat owners. The 41 million pound harvest was led by the private/rental mode (26 million pounds), and split evenly between state and federal waters. Over 80% of the trips were to state waters (4.2 million on shore and 3.7 million on private boats or rentals). Over 90% of the total number of trips was “produced” by the anglers (shore trips and private boats and rentals).

Anglers caught bluefish most often (37% of total number of fish), followed by summer flounder (23%), striped bass and scup in equal amounts (13% each), and black sea bass, cod, and haddock (together about 15%). The private boat/rental group caught the majority of these fish (65%); the shore fishing and for-hire fishing caught approximately 17% each.

Species caught varied somewhat by mode. Party boats caught mostly bluefish (26%) and black sea bass (25%), followed by haddock (16%), scup (14%), and cod (11%). The private boat/rental segment targeted summer flounder (29%) and bluefish (27%) but also caught scup (17%) and striped bass (14%). Finally, charter boat passengers caught mostly the gamefish (31% bluefish and 25% striped bass), but summer flounder (18%), black sea bass (11%), and cod (10%) figured in, too.

Recreational fishing is a significant source of fishing mortality for some species, especially sport-fish and summer flounder.

Regional Economic Impacts of Recreational Fisheries

Economists distinguish between economic activity (such as revenues, expenditures, income, and employment) and economic value (a net benefit, or surplus, after accounting for certain types of costs). Estimates of the economic value of different uses and assets are presented in other sections of Human Dimensions.

Dealers’ expenditures on commercial landings and anglers’ expenditures on tackle, boats, or party/charter boat services initiate a chain reaction in a regional economy. Commercial landings are distributed and processed and then exchanged in wholesale and retail markets. These “direct effects” of landings add to the economy’s income and employment base. In addition, “indirect effects” stem from purchases of goods and services that are needed by each industry, such as ice, fuel, trucks, electricity, and retail space. Finally, “induced effects” result when workers and businesses spend their income on household needs, leisure, and any number of goods and services that have nothing to do with fishing.

Recreational fishing is plugged into the economy at the opposite end of a similar market chain. Anglers spend money on fishing gear, boats, travel, fees for party and charter boat fishing, and so on. Their expenditures stimulate similar series of direct, indirect, and induced effects which also contribute income and employment to the economic base.

The overall effect of commercial or recreational fishing on an economy can be summarized by a single number called a multiplier. All economies are “leaky”, meaning that savings and purchases of goods and services outside the boundaries of the town, state, or country economy reduce the money supply. Seafood imports and sport-fishing trips in the Caribbean are leaks from the U.S. economy. The average number of times that a dollar circulates through an economy before being saved or spent outside the boundary is the multiplier.

Anglers’ expenditures on fishing needs (bait, gear, equipment) and travel (fuel, lodging) impact the local and regional economies in the same ways the commercial sector does. In a recent study for the NES LME, the highest sales, income, and employment impacts were generated in New Jersey, even though recreational fishing expenditures in Massachusetts and Maryland were considerably higher. This was because Maryland and Massachusetts import a higher proportion of goods and services required to satisfy angler demands. Overall, the per-dollar amount of angler expenditures that remained within each coastal state ranged from a low of 44 cents in Rhode Island to a high of 64 cents in New Jersey. Unfortunately, the impacts of recreational fishing on the regional economy cannot be estimated in this study because state models are not additive. Summing at the state level would underestimate total impacts because the multiplier effects would be underestimated.

Combined revenues from oceanic and estuarine commercial fisheries increased six-fold during this period, from less than $200 million when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was implemented in 1976 to a peak in 2005 that still holds in 2010 of over $1.4 billion (Figure 4). Gross revenues from shellfish landings far exceed finfish payments dockside, but especially recently. In 2009, shellfish landed revenue was almost $950 million owing primarily to large gains in the Atlantic sea scallop fishery. In fact, sea scallops generated more revenue than lobster for the first time in 2005 when both species hit their highest value to date (Figure 5). The increased worth of scallops was due to access to dense beds of sea scallops inside the groundfish closed areas (first granted in 1999) and to an area management policy that includes scallop areas for growing out large sets of small scallops. Dockside revenue from sea scallops alone was $380 million in 2009, placing it first in the top-10 ranking: sea scallops, American lobster, blue crab, Atlantic salmon, surf clams, menhaden, hard clam, Atlantic cod, Atlantic herring, and ocean quahog. Two of these species are estuarine and, therefore, are not managed by FMPs (blue crabs and hard clams), and Atlantic salmon are cultured mostly in Maine.

For more information, contact Barbara Rountree or visit the Social Science Branch Webpage

Human Communities

Humans as Part of the Ecosystem

small fishing boats
Figure 1

Humans are deeply embedded within coastal and marine ecosystems. We interact with these systems on so many different levels; as fishermen, consumers, vacationers, scientists, managers, stewards. We have the power to overexploit these resources as well as the power to choose to protect and manage them. The health or overuse of marine systems is in many ways a societal choice. These choices are driven by our unique and multidimensional relationship with marine resources. Cultural connections, economic concerns, scientific and traditional world views all coincide and drive the interface of humans and the marine environment at every scale.

Humans are the only species that consciously chooses preferred states for the ecosystem and intervenes to try to push the ecosystem toward those states. We decide what is a baseline. We decide where to place ecosystem boundaries. Obviously there are biological and physical factors involved in those choices, but the entire earth is an ecosystem and each small niche is an ecosystem; choices for boundaries must be made that involve political jurisdictions, practicality of scales of assessment and intervention and many other non-biological and non-physical characteristics.

Sociocultural approaches to understanding the role of humans in the marine ecosystem are thus much broader than, for example, simply modeling human prey selection or studying the implications of switching behavior on vessels. They cover the full range of human interactions with both the sea and each other, as they are governed by beliefs, practices, and institutions.

church statue
Figure 2

The relationships and interactions between humans and marine resources are complex and multifaceted. A number of different approaches within the social sciences have sought to understand the place of humans within ecosystems and their role in governing them, for example, cultural ecology, historical ecology, ecological anthropology, human ecology, human geography, landscape ecology, political ecology and environmental anthropology. At their most basic level, these approaches share the assumption that humans are animals within the ecosystem and need to be included as predators and as perturbation (e.g., causing pollution and runoff, altering landscapes or seascapes) -- in other words, we humans are not separate from or outside the system. Yet unlike other creatures within the ecosystem, humans have social, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual relationships with the rest of the system and its components which make humans unique and require certain special considerations.

Moreover, these interactions can be studied through hundreds of thousands of years of human relations with the environment. Indeed, work done by paleoarchaelogists in the Amazon has shown quite convincingly that what modern people may see as pristine rainforests are in fact environments that have been actively modified and managed by indigenous farming techniques for millennia. This is likely to be the case for inshore fisheries habitat as well (and perhaps to some degree offshore), and has important implications for ecosystem baselines and management.

ruins of terminal
Figure 3

Humans have the capacity to live and work in almost any conceivable environment due to ever improving technologies, and a complex set of political, economic, cultural and social norms and laws, some of which are firmly established practices and difficult to change and others that are in constant flux and vary over space and time. Within fisheries law, for example, new regulations might arise affecting capture practices and technologies, or new zoning rules might create MPAs (marine protected areas), seasonal closed areas, no-take zones and other area-specific ecosystem changes. Courts might take stricter or broader interpretations of legal requirements, as the importance of environmental concerns to society at large waxes and wanes. Within fishing communities, the political strength of recreational versus commercial fishermen might shift, or other community interests might take precedence as working harbor space loses ground to other developments.

Because of this broad context affecting the relations between humans and environment, those social scientists concerned with culture and society have always focused beyond the individual to the family, household and community, as well as at larger scales such as the region, nation, and beyond. This is an implicit ecosystem approach in that few individuals, let alone social groups, rely on one species or one kind of activity for their livelihood or their spiritual or other connection to the environment. Within the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), National Standard 8 and the definition of “fishing community,” for example recognize the broad nature of fishing dependence through their requirements to examine all fishing and directly related activity in a community, including that pertaining to commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing. (See National Standard Guidelines.)


Environmentalism has grown exponentially in recent decades as a core value and fundamental belief in America. Earlier views of the sea as filled with inexhaustible bounty have been eclipsed by fears among some people of potential extinctions among marine species. There are, however, variations in these beliefs by region, occupation and age; for example, while many Americans abhor the idea of hunting whales and seals for a variety of reasons from fear of extinction to beliefs about the human-like status of such marine mammals, other societies consider such species a valued form of food and reject special treatment. These types of beliefs and values, then, become fundamental to resource management when they affect the goals of optimum yields, influenced as they are by social, cultural, economic and biological parameters.

mehhaden fishing
Figure 4

Turning to the individual level, many studies focus on characteristics and beliefs. Fishermen, for example, are often described as individualistic, as risk-takers, as macho. Many studies support these descriptions. In a highly dangerous profession that often requires long periods away from the larger society, these traits can be adaptive. And like any dangerous activity, rituals and charms—from prohibitions against women on board a vessel to prohibitions against whistling—can be part of the activity of fishing. The social and cultural context of fishing, however, affects the uses of such rituals.

Relations among crew tend to be egalitarian, and when crew are paid with shares rather than wages they are more like partners in the fishing enterprise than simply employees. Often crew will be trained in more than one set of tasks. This fits well with a tendency toward individualism, and also provides an element of safety by creating backups in case of injury.

There is also a large social science literature on innovators. Some common elements within the marine context include fishery switching or annual rounds, acquiring multiple skill-sets that facilitate crew moving to captain or owner, deepening levels of skill and technical innovations such as bigger boats or better gear. The point to be taken from these and other studies is that it is the sociocultural world that provides the context, the motivations, and the means for these innovations in fisheries to occur. Understanding fisheries, and ultimately understanding ecosystem-based fisheries management, will require attention to the culturally specific ways that people use and value their resources.


Another line of research in fisheries social science with direct implications for ecosystem based management has to do with the cultural dimensions of resource decision-making: when, where and what to fish for, and then where to land and sell. Fishermen have always approached the sea as an ecosystem, whether through their frequent use of annual rounds or traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Annual rounds are a portfolio of fisheries and even land-based occupations utilized during different seasons and years, depending on relative abundance of specific species or the health of the ecosystem as a whole. Especially common among small-scale fishermen in New England, this may for example mean moving among cod, haddock, lobster, shrimp and construction work; or whiting, scup, summer flounder and squid.

The extent to which individuals engage in fishing activities for reasons other than recreation or commercial fishing in the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (NES LME) is poorly understood. Although some small-scale studies have been carried out, these have been narrow in focus. Existing material on subsistence fishing in North America generally focuses on First Nations (Native American) groups such as those in Canada and parts of Alaska and/or on the health implications of consuming marine resources in polluted areas.

Harwichport docks
Figure 5

Northeast research on this issue to date has tried to gauge the extent of subsistence fishing in this region and any similarity or difference from subsistence fishing in other regions. For example, is subsistence fishing more related to meeting cultural needs or nutritional needs? A study conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) through the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS) has allowed interviewees to self-define along a continuum from subsistence to recreational, where recreational involved fishing for pleasure with no actual dependence on the fish and subsistence involved dependence or reliance on Living Marine Resources (LMRs) for consumption, sharing, barter, or as small supplements to household incomes. Close to 10% defined themselves as subsistence only, with an additional 10-14% defining themselves as mixed subsistence-recreational. Current work in conjunction with the NMFS HQ Office of Science and Technology has continued that effort. However, the often marginal nature of subsistence fishing can make survey work challenging, and future research will include more dedicated ethnographic work to provide better depth and context.

chart of scallop vessel fishing activity
Figure 6. Fishing activity (days per location) by small and large scallop vessels. The red color scheme represents small vessels and the blue represents large vessels, with darker colors implying increased effort. (Source: 2001 logbooks.)

Small and large vessels, not surprisingly, often use different fishing grounds (see Figure 6), and many fishermen tend to fish consistently in the same areas and in areas close to their home and landing ports. The choice of species for small vessels is largely based on the species available adjacent to their homeport, as small vessels tend to fish relatively near to home. Even large vessels, however, may have annual rounds based on fishing different locations and/or different gears in different seasons.

This ability to move across species and fishing sites with assurance from year to year is based on intimate, niche-level knowledge of the properties of the ecosystems that they fish and the characteristic behaviors of the species they target, i.e., TEK. However, because the term TEK is often associated specifically with Native or aboriginal peoples a second term, Local Fisheries Knowledge or LFK, is often used to describe the knowledge of fishermen such as the majority of those in the northeast. But the types of knowledge acquired are the same, based in both cases on years and often generations of practical knowledge. (See this link for one NOAA-sponsored project on local fisheries knowledge in Maine.)

Beyond LFK, however, fishermen choose to fish in particular areas for multiple social as well as economic reasons. Choices of what size vessel to buy, what species to target and where, are based on a variety of factors including skill, preferences for certain types of fish and gear, and family considerations such as the age of one’s children. Day-trippers, for example, may fish close to shore because of a personal and social desire to come back home each night, even if that might mean for some a lower annual income.

There are two main implications for resource management. First is that any areas considered for special management such as closures must be especially sensitive to the fishermen and fishing communities that may be exclusively dependent on them. Spatially-based management may inadvertently favor fishermen who practice a mobile fishing strategy over smaller vessels or others who cannot switch areas as easily. This can mean disruptions to family and community life with related social problems, as well as decreased safety at sea, for the fishermen and fishing communities dependent on particular fishing grounds. Second, for fishermen, changing to new areas or changing their trip lengths involves a complex set of interacting variables. So, it is not enough to simply say long-term economic benefits from such an action will be positive.

Closures can also impact communities by altering landing patterns. Fishermen may choose to fish in a new area and land close to that area to avoid long steams to their traditional landing ports. Recent concerns over the potential closure of the Portland Fish Exchange illustrate this problem all too well. One question in considering closures then is whether those who bear the costs of management are the same as those who reap the benefits.

Mobility in the scallop fishery

Even in fisheries often assumed to be highly mobile, however, there is variation. In the Atlantic sea scallop fishery, it was estimated that between 1995 and 2004 the majority of vessels caught at least half of their annual scallop pounds in just one statistical area. Virtually all general category vessels (which tend to be smaller vessels) did so, as well as at least half of limited access vessels in seven out of the ten years examined (these tend to be large vessels that exclusively concentrate on scallops).

The concentration of fishing in particular fishing grounds can be for any number of reasons: that they fish with small boats and/or are day-trip boats, that they have extensive knowledge of particular but not all areas, or for social reasons such as those detailed above. The upshot is that use of particular fishing grounds varies by such fishing practices as port of landing, homeport, and vessel size. Figure 6, for example, shows the differential use of fishing grounds by small and large boats. Looking at how different fishing grounds contribute to a vessel’s annual scallop catch in relative rather than absolute terms shows the importance of the areas that line the coast of New England (and to a lesser extent, the Mid-Atlantic) in contrast to offshore areas. The use of inshore areas is related to the coastal ports that lie adjacent; the capacity of smaller vessels to travel offshore is more limited, and thus ports that are primarily small vessel ports will show a differential use and dependence on inshore and offshore grounds.

Spatial patterns in the herring fishery

Fishing involves much more than simply catching the fish, however. Where to land and sell is another decision that has ecosystem implications. The spatial connections between the different stakeholders in the herring industry can be mapped to show the variety of stakeholders and their relations including, among others, the fishermen who work various types of vessels that harvest herring, the lobstermen who depend on herring for bait and the plants that process the herring. Tracing the flow of resources from marine areas to final consumers helps identify these stakeholders and how regulatory changes might impact the nature of their interaction with the fishery. The harvesting, processing, and marketing of marine resources have been relatively poorly understood in many cases, including in the herring fishery.

chart of scallop vessel fishing activity
Figure 7. Gear types and vessels in management Area 1A that account for the majority of the herring catch and their ports. Symbols on the map show all support facilities and locate lobster permit holders.

Maps prove to be a powerful visual baseline for tracking regional changes in resource location and use over time, and can aid in decision-making. Figure 7 depicts the vessels in management Area 1A that account for the majority of the herring catch and their ports (vessels are often owned by processors or are otherwise loyal to one port). Symbols on the map show all bait dealers, freezer plants, pumping stations and canneries, as well as locations of lobster permit holders. (See the Affected Human Environment section of Amendment 1 to the Atlantic herring FMP for key descriptors of the communities as well as detailed descriptions of each processing plant, bait dealer, and freezer plant.) This map combines qualitative and quantitative spatial data for visualizing an often confusing and poorly understood web of interactions, such as the connections between the stocks of herring in the ocean and locations of social, cultural, and economic consequence on land. By presenting jointly in layers the quantitative results of biological, social, and economic questions which have been separated by single-species management protocols, the ecosystem and multi-species dimensions of important fisheries in the NES LME becomes clearer. Finally, there is a potential to make maps interactive so that managers and other stakeholders can test different scenarios.


Linking the land and the sea are both networks of social interaction and institutions related to resource use, work and household organization, and resource management. Institutions can be formal, such as a town council or a fishermen’s association, or informal, such as the lobster gang. Formal and informal institutions play a critical role in both social and economic theory.

One area of research especially fruitful for ecosystem based fisheries management has been the study of common property resources and the various institutional and community structures that foster different governance regimes. This work has clarified the differences among open access, private, state and communally held property, noting that in many places in the world, social groups such as communities have successfully restricted resource access and managed communally held property. The necessary conditions for this sort of management are found mostly on land and inshore, but some management of offshore fisheries by groups has been documented. These traditional forms of resource management have sometimes been replaced (even undermined) by state and market interventions. But others, such as lobster management, have continued to survive.

In the NES LME, social scientists are working on designing fisheries management tools which provide the opportunity for fishermen to collaboratively manage the resources their livelihoods depend on. In recent years the northeast has begun experimenting with the concept of fishery sectors where groups of fishermen are allocated a percentage of the fishing quota (similar to a cooperative). Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs), where consumers pay a monthly fee for a "share" of fish provided directly from participating vessels, are gaining popularity and are sometimes paired with a fishery sector like those just described. In some cases these arrangements remain informal or are business arrangements outside the regulatory process, but the goals are the same -- increasing participation by fishermen in marine resource management.

In addition to managing property, institutions may be formed to exclusively share information related to harvesting activities or to facilitate sales. Fishermen may develop codes they use over marine radio to inform others in their group of good fishing grounds. And usually beneficial though socially complex long-term partnerships are sometimes formed with dealers and processors.

The ways in which the labor of fishing is allocated among people and groups are also usually highly structured. Kinship, for example, can play a critical role in forming and motivating crews in certain ports or among certain social groups. Further, in kinship-based crews, crew may take reduced or no wages during periods of financial difficulty in order to keep the enterprise afloat. However, flexibility and variation are often the most important considerations, mixing kin and non-kin to maximize options.

Additionally, in many fishing societies it is primarily men who work at sea while women perform supporting tasks or work in related industries such as processing. In general, a livelihood like fishing that is dependent on resource vagaries tends to develop flexible patterns of resource use (different species, jobs at sea and on land, mixes of family jobs) that extend beyond fishing and beyond the locale, but these are always embedded in cultural worlds that may value, for example, particular kinds of gender or family relations.

In recent years, cooperative research programs have also facilitated partnerships between fishermen and scientists. Many have argued that the need for spatially-specific environmental information in ecosystem based fisheries management suggests possibilities for fishermen’s knowledge and fishing community involvement in management in the northeast. TEK/LFK offers the opportunity for cooperative research, combining what is often niche-based knowledge gained over many lifetimes with scientific knowledge generally based on much larger geographic scales.

Sociocultural analysis works in concert with that of economists who study property regimes by helping to explain the different values placed on different kinds of property rights. Cultural values and practices associated with natural resources include such issues as community stability, gender roles and relations, as well as cues of economic behavior. Such a broad framework for understanding resource management sheds additional light on the reasons that particular forms of management, such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) or harvest cooperatives, may or may not work in all sociocultural contexts.

Adaptability and Impacts

Both individuals and groups have the ability to adapt to change. Personality characteristics, social and economic status and institutions can all create or restrict flexibility in the actions that people can take. Coastal life in the northeast is facing rapid social and ecological change. Those engaged in fishing-related activities are leaving waterfront areas that they have traditionally occupied to make way for tourism development and second home markets, often in response to rising taxes linked to increasing property values. Tighter fishing regulations, higher fuel prices and declining stocks have also transformed the structure of the fishing industry.

Just as individuals respond differently to social and ecological changes, so do communities and sub-populations. For some, rapid change stimulates innovation and cooperation while others are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of change. In other words, some communities and groups may be more resilient to change or vulnerable to impacts than others. Understanding how communities and groups respond can help to inform the creation of marine resource management policies that are more socially sustainable.

Staff of the Social Sciences Branch (SSB) at the NEFSC have been involved in two projects about community resilience/vulnerability and the impacts of environmental and associated social change. In one study, SSB social scientists are working with researchers at the University of New Hampshire to improve our understanding of the factors that lead to successful collaborative responses to ecological, social and regulatory change by formal and informal institutions in this region-- factors improving resilence.

The second study, about environmental justice, is a collaboration between the SSB and researchers from Clark and Tufts Universities. Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, signed February 11, 1994, requires federal agencies to consider the impacts of their regulations on disadvantaged and/or minority populations, including income poor groups, ethnic minorities, female headed households, children and the elderly. In order to incorporate environmental justice into fisheries management, data from these segments of the population need to be collected. Traditional methods of measurement (such as income and ethnicity) are being complemented by industry-specific indicators such as fishery diversification and links between home ownership and vessel ownership.

Additionally, over the last five years, systematic research has been carried out to better understand the degree to which communities in the region are substantially engaged in fisheries and/or dependent on living marine resources. Short community profiles tap into existing demographic and other information available through the US Census and community web sites and complement it with vessel trip report and dealer data. For key communities, longer, more in-depth profiles provide a much richer description of the reality of coastal communities; ethnographic research methods such as unstructured interviews, participant observation and oral histories flesh out these quantitative data and provide both depth and context.

posters of women fishers
Figure 8.

Adaptability, of course, occurs on an individual level also. Until recently, NMFS collected scant information on the characteristics and experiences of most stakeholders. What little data were collected came mostly from fishing businesses and fisheries permit holders, and not vessel crew, processing plant employees or their families. How these other participants are engaged in and involved with fishing is connected to personal, historical and cultural factors that differ from person to person and place to place, and those factors determine how individuals experience ecological as well as social and regulatory change. These changes include far-reaching regulatory actions such as Amendment 13 to the groundfish plan, and more subtle transformations in local economies and waterfronts that affect the conditions of participation in fishing. Conducting oral histories - an interviewing method that relies on active listening - of a cross-section of individuals based on factors such as location, ethnicity, gender, and type of connection to the fisheries can allow researchers to see patterns that will improve our understanding of coping mechanisms and resilience to change.

Because little information exists on the experience and role of women and families that are connected to harvesting and processing of living marine resources, a research project which focuses on these key groups was developed throughout the northeast.

Two new surveys are also under development to target captains/owners and crew. These surveys are part of a larger program of the SSB to develop and track fishery performance measures over time. These will help us understand the ways in which important indicators change under different management regimes (including but not limited to catch shares) and over time.

Research initiatives at the NEFSC Social Sciences Branch that draw upon theories in anthropology and other social sciences on the interactions between humans and ecosystems contribute to a growing body of research focused on issues in North American fisheries and more locally in the northeastern United States. These efforts elevate the importance of the unique characteristics of human involvement in marine ecosystems and contribute to our understanding how fishing communities respond to changes in fishery regulations.

Further Readings

Campbell, L.M., N.J. Gray, E.L. Hazen, and J.M. Shackeroff. 2009. Beyond baselines: rethinking priorities for ocean conservation. Ecology and Society 14(1): 14. [online] URL:

Clay, P.M. and J. Olson. 2008. Defining ‘Fishing Communities’: Vulnerability and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Human Ecology Review 15(2): 143-160.

Folke, C., T. Hahn, P. Olsson, and J. Norberg. 2005. Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30: 441-473.

McCay, B.J. 1978. Systems ecology, people ecology, and the anthropology of fishing communities. Human Ecology 6(4): 397-422.

St. Martin, K., B.J. McCay, G.D. Murray, T.R. Johnson, and B. Oles. 2007. Communities, knowledge and fisheries of the future. International Journal of Global Environmental Issues 7(2/3): 221-239.

For more information, contact Julia Olson or visit the Social Sciences Branch Webpage