The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed a petition today on behalf of two fishing groups, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the Midcoast Fishermen's Association, asking the Secretary of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service to close loopholes that allow industrial herring midwater trawlers to fish in areas currently off limits to groundfish vessels.
The commercial herring industry is rapidly becoming dominated by these high-volume ships, paradoxically exempted from laws designed to reduce overfishing and protect vital spawning grounds of fragile populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish.
"These areas are the last place you want midwater trawls," said Craig Pendleton, coordinating director of Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. "If our fishing industry is going to survive, we need to stop overfishing and protect spawning grounds, not leave them open to giant midwater trawlers that wipe out everything in their path."
Under current rules, midwater trawlers dragging massive small-mesh nets are allowed to fish in areas closed to groundfishermen. The trawlers, sometimes working in pairs so they can drag even bigger nets between them, indiscriminately capture and kill all forms of sea life they encounter. The practice can lead to localized depletion of herring and contribute to the overfishing of severely depleted groundfish populations.
"As new scientific information becomes available, we see an increasing number of linkages between the emergence of the herring midwater trawl fishery and the continued poor health of New England's groundfish populations," said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming. "There's a mistaken assumption in current law that herring midwater trawlers are somehow incapable of catching groundfish. That's simply not true and we are trying to correct that."
In the 1970's, the herring population suffered a collapse and though the population has gradually recovered, the rise in midwater trawlers threatens to set back this progress. The New England Fishery Management Council has acknowledged the threat posed to the region by midwater 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.
"These ships are 180 feet long and they tow a net as long as a football field, as wide as a soccer pitch field and as tall as the U.S. Capitol building," said Peter Baker, of the Pew Environment Group which founded the Herring Alliance to protect New England's population of herring. "They march up and down the fishing grounds. Juvenile groundfish don't stand a chance. From the tuna, marine mammals and groundfish that feast on herring, to the lobstermen who use herring in their traps, these fish are fundamental to our ecosystem and our economy. We need to be smart about how we manage this critically important resource before it is too late."
Despite tightened regulations on groundfishermen in recent years, new scientific reports issued this summer show that overfishing is occurring on eight of 19 managed groundfish stocks, and that 13 stocks remain overfished. These reports also show that federal monitoring requirements for the herring midwater trawl industry are woefully insufficient. Nonetheless, available data clearly show that midwater trawlers catch juvenile and adult groundfish and point to significant problems in the industry. For example, in well-publicized incidents in 2004, enforcement personnel from the Maine Marine Patrol and Massachusetts Environmental Police caught midwater herring trawlers illegally trying to land thousands of pounds of juvenile haddock and hake mixed with their herring catch.
"The current rules undermine our hard work to protect the New England fish stock and preserve a livelihood for future generations of fishermen," said Glen Libby, commercial fisherman and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen's Association. "When the rules are applied unevenly, everybody suffers."
Roger Fleming, Earthjustice, (978) 846-0612
Craig Pendleton, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, (207) 590-9614
Glen Libby, Midcoast Fishermen's Association, (207) 372-6287