Many conservationists call New England fisheries among the most loosely managed in the US. They say the region's officials often fail to enact needed restrictions, putting fishermen above the fish.
Unlike most regional management councils, critics point out, New England's does not set species-by-species quotas (except in the case of herring) on annual catches. Instead, it reduces the number of days fishermen are allowed to fish, and then sets weight limits for their daily totals.
When the stock of tile fish in the mid-Atlantic region fell 70 percent below healthy levels, the fishing industry quickly accepted a quota that cut landing by 50 percent, according to Sonja Fordham, fish-conservation project manager at the Ocean Conservancy in Washington. In New England, conversely, landings of Gulf of Maine cod one of the region's most endangered ground fish have exceeded estimates six years running, yet fishermen balk at the idea of establishing a quota, says Ms. Fordham.
Without penalties, "you're not challenging the industry to make it work," says Andy Rosenberg, former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Implementing quotas in New England would be complicated by the fact that the fisheries hold many species. "It's difficult to limit the annual take of a species when you're catching different fish at the same time," says analyst Patricia Fiorelli of the Management Council, an advisory group to the US government.
Ms. Fiorelli says the Management Council used quotas in New England in the 1980s, and has not ruled out implementing them again in the future.
Some critics point to the New England fishing industry's long history to explain what they view as fishermen's inordinate influence on policy. Because New England's waters have been systematically fished longer than any others in the US, fishermen there have won a certain community clout, they say. Many believe that they should be able to fish as their grandfathers did.
"Part of it has to do with the strong, ingrained belief there that people have the right to fish," says Ellen Pikitch, director of the marine conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.
New England is not alone, however, in its failure to rebuild fish stocks. Red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys, yellow perch and lake white fish in the Great Lakes, and salmon in the Pacific Northwest are all examples of fish populations currently threatened by overharvesting, according to Ed Rutherford, a research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"If you look at any big fishery around the world ... with very few exceptions, you will find problems similar to New England," says Mr. Rutherford.
Upset with current fishery management, many fishermen are working directly with scientists in order to formulate better policy. Last year, fishermen began working with government scientists on a cooperative study of New England's monkfish stock. The data yielded a more accurate picture of the species, and forestalled a closure of the fishery.
"Working with the scientists is our best chance to be heard," says Bob MacKinnon, president of the Massachusetts Netters Association.
Limiting the amount of "bycatch" fish taken unintentionally is one priority. New ideas include nets with removable top sections, allowing fish like cod, which tend to flee toward the surface, to escape. Other nets combine different mesh sizes to allow different varieties of fish to swim free.