Marine Science Faculty Publications

Large-Scale Disturbance and the Structure of Marine Systems: Fishery Impacts on Georges Bank

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Digital Object Identifier (DOI)[S6:LDATSO]2.0.CO;2


Georges Bank, a shallow submarine plateau located off the New England coast, has supported valuable commercial fisheries for several centuries. The region is characterized by high levels of primary productivity and, historically, high levels of fish production. Within the last four decades Georges Bank has been subjected to major perturbations that have profoundly altered levels of catch, abundance, and species composition. The arrival of distant water fleets during the early 1960s resulted in dramatic increases in effective fishing effort and the subsequent commercial collapse of several fish populations. Total fish biomass is estimated to have declined by >50% on Georges Bank during the period of operation of the distant water fleets. The implementation of extended jurisdiction (the 200-mile [370.4-km] limit) in 1977 was followed by modernization and increased capacity of the domestic fleet, resulting in a second perturbation to the system that resulted in further declines in groundfish populations to historically low levels. A subsequent increase in the abundance of species of low commercial value was documented, with an apparent replacement of gadid and flounder species by small elasmobranchs (including dogfish sharks and skates). Examination of feeding guild structure suggests that this switch in species dominance may have been linked to a competitive release. The small elasmobranchs, notably dogfish sharks, also prey on species of commercial importance (primarily small pelagics, including herring and mackerel). The cumulative impacts on the groundfish populations as a result of intense exploitation and predation pressure may have been further exacerbated by effects of fishing gear on the physical structure of the habitat. Implications for the development of an ecosystem-based management approach are described.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

Ecological Applications, v. 8, issue sp1, p. S6-S22