By John Pappalardo
A straightforward word like “groundfish” should have a straightforward definition. But in the complicated world of fisheries management, even defining “groundfish” can get downright confusing.
Are groundfish those fish that spend their lives swimming along the bottom? That would make sense, but when it comes to fishing regulations, the answer to that would be, Yes and no.
Are all fish that have fins and/or gills, with commercial value, referred to as groundfish? That would be a definite No.
Here’s a quick rundown:
Are cod considered groundfish? Yes.
How about monkfish? That would be a no.
Haddock? Yes, even though they swim well up in the water column.
Skates? Another no, even though they live on the bottom.
Yellowtail flounder, another bottom dweller? Sure, and add to that species like hake, pollock, redfish, and other flounders too.
How about dogfish, another important commercial stock for Cape fishermen? Nope.
The reasons for what seem like arbitrary distinctions go back to the early days of federal fisheries management. In the 1970s and 1980s, the focus was on what you might call the Big Three — cod, haddock, and yellowtail. They were the valuable, targeted fish, and that’s where the initial push to manage stocks moved. And so these three generally were referred to as groundfish in a kind of shorthand.
By 1996, when Congress passed federal legislation that set a goal and requirement for all commercial stocks to be managed “sustainably,” it became apparent that other species needed to join the party. As stocks became more profitable, fished harder, and became candidates for management, they joined what most people called “the groundfish management plan.” Realizing that the name really wasn’t right, the feds tried (and keep trying) to call this “the multispecies plan.” But the common name is stubborn.
So why aren’t monkfish, for example, folded into the groundfish management plan?
The answer is more political than scientific. There was a strong lobbying effort against bringing monkfish in; the arguments had to do with it being a larger mesh-size fishery, discreet from other “groundfish” effort, but the opposition really was rooted in a desire to keep the fishery as far away from the multispecies plan as possible. When it came to all seven species of skates, or dogfish, for a long time those stocks weren’t considered of much value, not worth the time, attention, and expense of dragging them under the federal management tent.
So here we are, decades later, and we have individual management plans for each of the “groundfish,” each with its own rules like how many pounds can be caught, minimum sizes, closures by time and area. These plans are in response to Congress’s mandate that managers find some way to keep the industry profitable, and protect fishing stocks for the future.
The intent was fine, but it’s fair to say that the results have not been great. Put it another way: If we could start from scratch, would we create something similar to what we’re working under now?
Very doubtful. We likely wouldn’t have all these plans, fish by fish. We’d more likely manage by gear, and area: If you’re fishing with hooks, here’s what you need to do. If you’re fishing with gillnets, or dragging, ditto. If you’re going after bottom fish in the Gulf of Maine, here you go. If you’re going for them on Georges Bank, read this.
It would still be complicated, but it would take into better account how fishing really works now and for the future. It wouldn’t begin by pretending that each species exists in a kind of silo.
If something radical like that were to happen, then “groundfish” would be able to settle back into its more natural meaning.