Troubled by the National Marine Fisheries Service's inaction in the face of mounting evidence that these herring trawlers are catching haddock and other groundfish in their nets, a coalition of herring fishermen who oppose industrial trawl fishing for herring filed a 'friend of the court' legal brief in support of a lawsuit by Midcoast Fishermen's Association (MFA), arguing that trawling should not take place in groundfish closed areas because it results in staggering amounts of bycatch.
Glenn Robbins, an Atlantic herring fisherman from Eliot, Maine, fished with herring midwater trawls in the past but stopped because he believes it destroys fishery resources including groundfish like cod and haddock. Robbins is one of many herring fishermen who joined the challenge against industrial herring trawlers.
"I've been fishing for herring for 50 years and the traditional purse seine nets we use have always been able to supply Maine's lobster industry with bait without harming the groundfish population," said Robbins. "I've fished for groundfish too, and I stepped into this lawsuit because it's just a bad idea to have those trawl nets on the bottom in these closed areas."
Represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice in the original legal proceedings, the MFA argued that the federal government is ignoring ten years worth of data documenting bycatch by high-volume herring ships in areas identified as spawning grounds and sanctuaries for the region's dwindling groundfish populations.
"On behalf of the Midcoast Fishermen's Association, we welcome the involvement of New England's traditional herring fishermen," said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming. "There used to be no midwater trawlers fishing New England waters. Today, these massive slaughter ships coming from all over the world carelessly and destructively catch most of the region's herring -- threatening the livelihood of traditional herring fishermen and groundfishermen alike."
Herring trawlers can stretch up to 165 feet and hold more than one million pounds of catch. Trawlers drag massive nets behind them. So big that one net is often towed by two vessels in a practice called pair trawling, and the nets' small mesh is capable of catching everything in its path.
The MFA's lawsuit seeks to close a loophole allowing industrial herring trawlers to fish in designated "groundfish-closed areas." These waters have been identified as nursery areas for cod, haddock and other groundfish and are currently off-limits to nearly all other fishing vessels.
"Herring trawlers should not be allowed into the groundfish closed areas because many hard-working fishermen have sacrificed for years to rebuild those populations," said Kurt Martin, a fisherman for 25 years who targets various species with weirs on Cape Cod including Atlantic herring. "Traditional gear like herring weirs and purse seines can catch herring without decimating other fisheries."
"Since industrial trawlers have moved into our waters, we've seen all our forage species populations plummet, including river herring and mackerel," said Tom Osmers of West Tisbury, Mass. on Martha's Vineyard. "We sympathize with our groundfishermen friends who also feel the impact of trawlers' bycatch on their industry. Those boats make big mistakes. They can wipe out a whole river herring run in one tow and they can cause a lot of damage in a groundfish closed area in one tow too."