The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the complaint on behalf of two fishing groups, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the Midcoast Fishermen's Association. The lawsuit seeks to close a loophole allowing industrial herring mid-water 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.
"Small 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. "When the rules are applied unevenly, everybody suffers."
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.
Mid-water 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 policy has proved disastrous. While shortcomings in the federal monitoring program make precise numbers difficult to obtain, it is estimated that in recent years mid-water trawl vessels have caught hundreds of thousands of pounds of mature and juvenile groundfish as bycatch. In a well-publicized 2004 enforcement sweep, personnel from the Maine Marine Patrol and Massachusetts Environmental Police caught mid-water herring trawlers illegally trying to land thousands of pounds of juvenile haddock and hake mixed with their herring catch.
"Federal officials have turned a blind eye to the effects of this ill-conceived policy," said Roger Fleming of Earthjustice. "These areas are the last place you want high-volume industrial ships. This lawsuit is demanding that officials close sensitive fishing grounds to herring trawlers before it is too late."
Despite tightened regulations on groundfishermen in recent years, scientific reports issued last summer show that overfishing is occurring on eight of 19 managed groundfish stocks, and that 13 stocks remain overfished.
The 2006 Report on the Status of U.S. Fisheries paints a bleak portrait of groundfish in New England: Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank haddock, American plaice, Southern New England windowpane flounder, ocean pout, and Atlantic halibut are all considered overfished. For stocks like Georges Bank cod and Gulf of Maine cod, estimated to be at 10 and 23 percent of their respective target levels, the situation is dire.
"We have been doing our part to preserve the groundfish stock, but it's not enough," said Curt Rice, a commercial fisherman for 36 years and a board member of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. "It's time for federal officials to recognize there is a larger problem and fix it."