Herring are vital to the Atlantic food chain. From tuna, marine mammals and cod that eat herring, to the lobstermen who use herring in their traps, these fish are fundamental to the Northeast's coastal ecosystem and economy. But, the health of this critical resource and all who depend on it are being threatened by high-volume industrial ships known as mid-water trawlers which are increasingly dominating the commercial herring industry.
This Wednesday, the council is scheduled to vote on its priorities for the coming year. Fishermen and conservation groups are urging council members to take a hard look at the rules governing mid-water trawlers.
"In 1995, there were no mid-water trawlers fishing these waters," said Steve Weiner, chairman of CHOIR. "Today, these ships, coming from all over the world, catch the vast majority of the region's herring. The regulations have yet to catch up with these changes; the fishery is still being treated as the small-scale fleet it once was."
Mid-water trawlers drag massive small-mesh nets behind them, sometimes working in pairs tugging an even bigger net between them. Stretching to 150 feet, these ships can hold up to one million pounds of catch.
"Mid-water trawlers are the biggest fishing vessels on the East Coast," said Peter Baker of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Group and director of the Herring Alliance. "They're carrying the largest nets. Yet they're subject to some of the weakest rules. It defies logic that a ship towing a net the size of a football field, scooping up everything in its path, faces less regulations than a hook and line fisherman."
Under current rules, these industrial ships are allowed to fish in fragile cod spawning grounds closed to groundfishermen and to net more hake, haddock and cod by accident than many fishing communities targeting those species catch in a year. Despite this potential to greatly impact the health of these stocks and the economic well-being of other fishermen, current monitoring and reporting requirements can not reliably quantify either the catch of herring or bycatch of other species.
"With little federal oversight and almost no accountability, mid-water trawlers have operated in the shadows for too long," said Roger Fleming of Earthjustice. "The current rules undermine efforts to protect the New England fish stocks and preserve a livelihood for future generations of fishermen. When the rules are applied unevenly, everybody suffers."
In the 1970's, the herring population suffered a collapse and though the population has gradually recovered, the rise in mid-water trawlers threatens to set back this progress.
The New England Fishery Management Council has acknowledged the threat posed to the region by mid-water trawlers, implementing a summertime ban on the vessels in the Gulf of Maine coastal waters. The change took effect this summer. Since then, fishermen and many others have reported a noticeable increase in marine life in these waters. But, the industry remains largely un-monitored and many vital areas of ocean, from Cape Cod to Long Island, remain open to these destructive ships.
The push to reform the commercial herring industry has aligned recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen and conservationists, generating more than 10,000 postcards, e-mails, letters and phone calls to members of the NEFMC in recent weeks.
"New England's traditional cod, tuna and striped bass fishermen have sacrificed to promote conservation," said Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association Executive Director Paul Parker. "It's imperative that these industrial vessels don't undermine our hard work."
Roger Fleming, Earthjustice, (978) 846-0612