Represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice, the Midcoast Fishermen's Association is proceeding with its lawsuit to evict the high-volume herring ships from areas identified as spawning grounds and sanctuaries for the region's dwindling groundfish populations.
Troubled by agency inaction in the face of mounting evidence that herring ships are catching haddock and other groundfish stocks in their nets, the groups filed papers Wednesday signaling its intent to proceed with its federal court case.
"Many fishermen in New England have made sacrifices to preserve a livelihood for future generations. But the current rules are undermining our hard work," said Glen Libby, a commercial fisherman and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen's Association. "If our region's groundfish populations are ever going to recover, we need to fix this problem. And it looks like the only way to do it is through the courtroom."
In November 2007, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to make herring industry reform a priority and initiated a new amendment to the herring fishery management plan. In November 2008 the council voted to specifically prioritize resolution of the midwater trawl access issue in 2009 after government data indicated herring midwater trawlers continuing to net groundfish bycatch in protected areas. This was closely followed by a vote by the council's herring subcommittee to recommend analysis of a proposal that would limit midwater trawl access to groundfish protected areas, and only allow it on an experimental basis with high levels of monitoring and other criteria to determine if such fishing could be conducted responsibly.
But at the council's most recent meeting on February 9, the council backtracked on its promise and never considered the herring subcommittee's recommendation.
"More than a year ago the Midcoast Fishermen brought the ecologically damaging impacts of midwater trawl fishing in groundfish protected areas to the attention of fisheries regulators. Yet groundfishermen have nothing to show for it," said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming. "We have no choice but to proceed in the courts."
Midwater trawlers were initially banned from groundfish-closed areas in 1994. But in 1998 federal regulators decided to re-open these areas to trawlers, based on an assumption that the herring ships would catch little or no groundfish in their nets.
The assumption has proved false. In a well-publicized 2004 enforcement sweep, 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. In recent months, government monitors have documented several instances where thousands of pounds of haddock were caught and discarded by herring midwater trawlers.
Mid-water trawlers drag massive small-mesh nets behind them, sometimes working in pairs, towing an even bigger net between them. Stretching to 165 feet, these vessels can hold more than one million pounds of catch.
The MFA's lawsuit seeks to close a loophole allowing industrial herring midwater trawlers to fish in designated "groundfish-closed areas." These waters have been identified as spawning grounds and sanctuaries for cod, haddock, and other groundfish stocks and are currently off-limits to nearly all other fishing vessels.
Despite tightened regulations on groundfishermen in recent years, a scientific report issued late last summer shows that 13 out of 19 managed groundfish stocks are classified as overfished, up from 8 out of 19 stocks at the time of the last comprehensive scientific review in 2004.
A 2008 report from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center paints a bleak portrait of groundfish in New England. In addition to the thirteen stocks identified as overfished, 13 stocks are experiencing overfishing including 11 of the stocks already classified as overfished. The situation is dire for many stocks, like Georges Bank cod and several flounder stocks, which remain at only a small fraction -- less than 25 percent -- of their respective target levels.
Only two stocks of haddock, American plaice, and redfish are currently considered both not overfished and not subject to overfishing.
Click this link to listen to the February 9 NEFMC meeting, select Feb. 9-11 under the council meeting audio tab, and choose #4 for the herring committee report.
Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235