To glimpse a herring school darting through the ocean's waters, moving like a single, iridescent organism is a spectacle indeed. But these silvery synchronized swimmers are more than just a pretty sight. The small schooling fish form the cornerstone of New England's marine ecosystem with whales, seabirds, striped bass and tuna depending on herring for survival. Herring also made possible the development of the region's commercial fishing industry, providing forage for cod, haddock and other groundfish, bait for lobstermen and sardines for human consumption.
Today, the herring resource supports commercial and recreational fisheries with a value of more than a billion dollars as well as an ecotourism sector that includes whale watching, birding and boating.
In the 1970's, the herring population suffered a collapse. The population has gradually recovered, but trends in the commercial herring industry threaten to set back this progress. The herring industry is now dominated by high-volume industrial ships known as midwater trawlers – which drag massive small-mesh nets behind them, catching and killing everything in their path. The trawlers sometimes work in pairs so they can drag even bigger nets between them. The practice can lead to localized depletion of herring, contribute to the stalled recovery of severely depleted populations of cod, hake, haddock, river herring, and other fish, and the death of marine mammals and seabirds entangled in their nets.
Today these industrial ships, which came to New England in the mid 1990s, catch well over 150 million pounds of herring each year, accounting for more than 80 percent of the region's total herring catch.
Smaller-scale fishermen targeting the species which feed on herring were among the first to notice a problem and with the help of Earthjustice attorneys, recently went to court seeking to get these ships out of critical spawning grounds. In the fall of 2007, New England fisheries managers recognized the threat posed by midwater trawlers, implementing a summertime ban on the vessels in Gulf of Maine coastal waters. The change took effect in the summer of 2007 and since then, fishermen and many others have reported a noticeable increase in marine life.
But these steps won't be enough; comprehensive and common-sense reforms are needed. The industry remains largely un-monitored and too many vital areas of ocean, from Cape Cod to Long Island, remain open to these destructive ships.
Watch an eight-minute video produced by the National Geographic Society explaining the problem in the herring trawl fishery:
Read Out of Balance: Industrial Fishing and the Threat to Our Ocean, a report chronicling the growth of the industrial herring industry (PDF)
See a map showing the areas that remain open to midwater herring trawlers, but closed to other fishermen (PDF)