A century of haddock captures the American fishing experience

Oct 28, 2020 | Charting the Past

By 1921 and 1922, the haddock fishery had exploded.. NOAA photo.

By Seth Rolbein

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As the Fishermen’s Alliance is now working with food banks and pantries around New England to provide nutritious, delicious haddock chowder to people having trouble putting food on the table, we began to wonder about the history of haddock, the role it has played in the region’s history, why it has always seemed to be even more popular in New England than elsewhere.

The tale begins exactly a century ago, though elements of it feel as modern as today.

In 1920, the American fishery was at the start of its most profound transformation: Schooners under sail were being replaced by trawlers powered by steam. Much greater quantities of fish could be caught in nets pulled using engine power than on lines hauled by hand, and with more predictability.

Meanwhile on land, marketing and distribution of fresh fish improved. So did technology to freeze. And so the classic method that schooners on long voyages used to preserve their hauls, salting, which worked especially well with codfish, no longer was essential.

Enter the haddock fillet.

By 1921 and 1922, the haddock fishery had exploded. Haddock was well known among immigrants from Great Britain, where haddock were if anything even more plentiful than in New England waters of Georges Bank. The Scottish favorite was “Finnan haddie,” lightly smoked, which didn’t travel well but now could be made on this side of the Atlantic. Irish families liked haddock as much or more than its close relative cod – both belong to what biologists call the “Gadidae” family, known as “the true cods” — and Catholic families required to eat fish every Friday could turn to it now.

Huge harvests ensued, with Boston the leading port. To give a sense of the enormity of scale, government records show that toward the end of the 1920s, in a single spike year, 120,000 tons of haddock was landed out of Georges Bank – that’s 240 million pounds. A report written by researchers at Harvard University determined that in 1930, at the Boston pier alone, 37 million pounds of haddock landed. Codfish, historic and iconic, came to be considered as haddock’s bycatch.

But there was a dark side to this success. Trawlers were using a very small-sized mesh as they hauled, meaning that pretty much everything in their path was caught, nets not allowing small fish to pass through tiny diamond-shaped openings in the twine. This was very efficient, but also very destructive. The same Harvard study from 1930 that documented 37 million pounds of haddock landed in Boston determined that on those trips another 70 to 90 million pounds of baby haddock – too small for market – were being discarded overboard. Most of those fish would not survive that trauma, would never mature.

This led to calls to force trawlers to use larger mesh. But there was no political will to do that, particularly in the face of opposition from many in the fishing industry. Not until the 1950s would mesh-size reforms and new requirements even begin to take hold.

And so the haddock fishery crashed. By 1933, official records show that 25,000 tons of haddock was harvested out of Georges, less than a quarter of the tonnage from a few years earlier. The fishery did recover somewhat, and from around 1940 through the mid-1960s the harvest held at somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 tons per year. But even that level couldn’t sustain. By 1970 it was down to 15,000 tons. By 1990 there was almost no haddock harvested on Georges. People began using the term “commercially extinct,” predicting that haddock would never come back.

That too turned out to be wrong. With fishing pressure reduced, protected seasons and habitat set aside, haddock did what they are made to do, spawning in amazing numbers; one female can produce 850,000 eggs per spawn, even as much as three million. The stocks began to rebuild.

Today National Marine Fisheries reports that haddock are plentiful again, though they seem to be growing more slowly than they used to. After studying and assessing the haddock population, regulators have set a total allowable catch (the amount that can be harvested but keep haddock healthy and reproducing) at almost 680 metric tons on Georges Bank and another 116 metric tons in the Gulf of Maine. That’s far more fish than is likely to be caught, but clear proof haddock have rebounded.

That haddock have come back is testament to the amazing regenerative power of fish, and the ocean. That they were depleted so dramatically is testament to the remarkable capacity of people to create and harness technology to catch them. Finding the balance of those two forces, both expressed in a century of haddock history, continues to be the crucial challenge in fisheries management today.


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