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Ludwig’s Ratchet and the Collapse of New England Groundfish Stocks

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The stocks of principal groundfish species off New England have collapsed, creating economic hardship and dislocation in fishing communities from Rhode Island to Maine. In this article we analyze the causes of this collapse using the “ratchet effect” described by Ludwig, Hilborn, and Walters (1993) as a framework. According to Ludwig, Hilborn, and Walters, powerful economic and political interests drive fisheries to overcapitalize and overexploit despite scientific evidence that stocks are declining. When the fishery is no longer economically viable, governments provide financial assistance to minimize economic hardship. When stocks increase there is another rush to invest, and the cycle repeats itself. The history of groundfish management in New England conforms well to this model. Optimism among fishers and government over U.S. control of this fishery in 1977 stimulated successive rounds of investment that built up excessive fishing capacity despite warnings from scientists that stocks were becoming weaker. Management regimes designed by the New England Fishery Management Council were ineffective in constraining fishing effort. Collapse of the stocks has led to severe restrictions on fishing and to government assistance. We suggest that the integration of science, management, and harvesting sectors through ecosystem-based management offers the best means of avoiding similar situations in the future.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Rhode Island 2: University of British Columbia

Publication date: 2000-07-01

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