Gone Fishing

The lab activity described here was created by Erin Bardar and Sarah L Hill of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

This investigation introduces students to overfishing, using Georges Bank groundfish as a case study. In Part A, students learn about overfishing by examining trends in annual haddock landings and mortality in Georges Bank from 1969-2016. In Part B, they learn about what it means for a species to be overfished by examining trends in Georges Bank Atlantic cod recruitments and spawning biomass from 1978-2014. In Part C, students explore the issue of the still-collapsed cod stocks and the role ocean warming may play in the failure to for the stock to rebound.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • analyze annual fish landing, mortality, and biomass data;
  • explain reasons for what caused the collapse of groundfish populations in New England;
  • define the terms overfishing and overfished; and
  • understand how factors such as ocean temperature can affect cold water fisheries like cod.

Open the Student Lab »

Context for Use

Having already learned some about the basics of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Lab 4: To Fish or Not to Fish?, students are prepared to learn more about the specific human practices and actions that make these protected areas necessary. In this lab, they will learn about overfishing, using the Georges Bank region off the New England coast as a case study. They will also be introduced to ocean warming affecting fish stocks, which will be revisited in Lab 8.

This lab takes approximately three 50- to 60-minute class periods. Readings can be assigned as homework.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

In Part A of this lab, students examine trends in Georges Bank haddock catches and fishing mortality from 1969-2016. In doing so, they are introduced to how scientists determine whether or not a species is subject to overfishing. Students will look at the same data for Georges Bank & Gulf of Maine cod.

In Part B, students examine trends in Georges Bank Atlantic cod recruitment and spawning stock biomass from 1969-2014, in order to learn about what it means for a species to be overfished. They watch a short video about cod and read the Brief history of the groundfishing industry in New England to learn about how Georges Bank fisheries came to be in such dire conditions. They end by comparing the Georges Bank haddock recruitment and spawning stock biomass for the same time period.

In Part C, students learn about the partial success of MPAs and fishing zone closures in rejuvenating certain fish stocks in Georges Bank. They watch several short videos, read an excerpt of a report from GMRI about the warming Gulf of Maine and how cod may be affected, view an animation of ocean SST anomaly in the Gulf of Maine, and consult information form two more reports about warming affecting cod in the region, which may be the reason the stocks have not yet recovered.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet ( and )
  • Brief history of the groundfishing industry of New England
  • The Gulf of Maine Research Institute report, The Future of Cod in the Gulf of Maine. Section 1. Understanding Environmental Change (Acrobat (PDF) 386kB May21 20)
  • NOAA Fishwatch Atlantic cod profile

Teaching Notes and Tips

This lab is more challenging than earlier labs in this module, and students may need additional guidance.

It may be helpful to have students create a glossary of unfamiliar vocabulary terms and acronyms.


You can assess student understanding of topics addressed in this Investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Content Extension

  • The NOAA Office of Sustainable Fisheries web page provides access to information associated with and resulting from National Marine Fisheries Service implementation of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, including 1996 changes and amendments to the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. From this page, you can access documents and reports concerning overfishing and stock assessments in U.S. fisheries.
  • Each year the National Marine Fisheries Service supplies Congress with a report called The Status of the Stocks. This report summarizes the known data from each of the eight regional fish councils and reports on their progress toward ending overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks as mandated by the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act.
  • GMRI Full Report The Future of Cod in the Gulf of Maine
  • The Ocean Conservancy Overfishing Scorecard uses data from the Status of the Stocks report to highlight the activities of the regional fish councils that are helping to end overfishing and rebuild overfished fish stocks; share solutions; provide important perspective by comparing management across regions; highlight progress-or problems-in areas that might not be readily apparent; encourage best practices; and advance the dialogue about how to achieve sustainable fisheries throughout U.S. waters.
  • The Economist article A rising tide: Scientists find proof that privatising fishing stocks can avert a disaster discusses how the projected collapse of the fishing industry might be avoidable by privatization of commercial fisheries and what are known as catch shares or Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).