Today, recreational fishing advocate Patrick Paquette of Hyannis, Mass. filed a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a NMFS video previously shown at a public meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) Herring Oversight Committee, which showed footage of federal observers on board a midwater trawl ship.
The council is in the process of developing a comprehensive monitoring system for the Atlantic herring fishery, and the industrial midwater trawl fleet is currently under review by regulators due to evidence that the fishery catches large amounts of threatened groundfish, river herring and marine mammals as "bycatch," species caught unintentionally while targeting Atlantic herring.
The video provides important insights into the sampling procedures of federal observers and the loopholes in the monitoring program that stakeholders like Paquette have been working to correct. The video has never been posted with the other meeting materials online, as is customary, and shows rare footage of fishing operations and monitoring valuable to those who are participating in the development of new regulations.
"Representatives of the herring trawl industry refer to this video at meetings as if it has the weight of a report by the federal observer program because that is what it allegedly was," said Paquette, who represents multiple recreational fishing organizations including the 60-year-old Massachusetts Striped Bass Association. "This is supposed to be a clear and open public process, but I have run out of places to ask for a copy of the video, so my only option is to ask a federal judge."
"The agency's refusal to provide Mr. Paquette with a copy of the video after showing it as part of a public policy-making meeting is a baffling move by NMFS," said Roger Fleming, attorney with Earthjustice. "It begs the question: 'What is it they are trying to hide?'"
In a separate filing also related to monitoring in the herring fishery, Captain Peter Taylor of Chatham, Mass. filed suit last Wednesday against NMFS for creating a new loophole in a rule that will allow herring vessels to dump uninspected bycatch when fishing in an area closed to most fishermen for the specific purpose of protecting troubled groundfish stocks.
The area southeast of Cape Cod, known as Closed Area 1, has been identified as a spawning ground and nursery area for juvenile cod and haddock. These waters are currently off-limits to nearly all other fishing vessels. Captain Taylor requested that the court require NMFS to reconsider a loophole that allows herring vessels to dump certain pre-sorted catch with no inspection and no accountability.
"This comes down to fairness," said Taylor. "I just want herring trawlers held to the same standards when they fish in that area as I am, and that means they shouldn't be allowed to discard fish that the observers haven't inspected properly. When I am observed, all the fish in my gear is counted, and I still fish with hooks. But herring trawl nets are massive, with way more impact, and to only observe part of their catch just isn't right."
The original rule proposed by NMFS was a reasonable approach to gathering more data about bycatch by midwater trawl vessels. The final rule incorporated a change allowing for the dumping loophole. The original rule received an overwhelming number of public comments supporting it.
"The law frowns upon surprises like this one that reverse the direction of proposed rules," said Fleming. "It deprives the public of their statutory right to notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard."
Herring trawlers can stretch up to165 feet and hold more than one million pounds of catch. They drag massive nets behind them that are so big that one net is often towed by two vessels in a practice called pair trawling, and the net's small mesh is capable of catching everything in its path. This type of vessel came to New England's waters only 15 years ago, and was quickly found to be out of scale with the region's traditional fishing fleet. Many fishermen believe that these trawlers are causing the fragile marine ecosystem to collapse.
Both of the actions challenged appear to conflict with the new White House policy on open government. For a copy of the President's directives on government transparency and open government issued on his very first day in office, please see the following: Presidential Memorandums to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies re: Freedom of Information Act, and Transparency and Open Government, 74 Fed. Reg. 4683, 4685 (January 26, 2009). http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment/