A report released today by the Herring Alliance exposes a threat to New England’s coastal waters that has gone largely unnoticed in recent decades: the mismanagement of the commercial Atlantic herring industry.
The report, “Out of Balance: Industrial Fishing and the Threat to Our Ocean,” details the pivotal role Atlantic herring play in the region’s ecosystem and economy, and charts the growth of the industrial-scale herring fleet that jeopardizes the health of this key resource.
Atlantic herring form the cornerstone of New England’s marine ecosystem with whales, seabirds, striped bass and tuna depending on these fish for survival. Herring also made possible the development of the region’s commercial fishing industry, providing forage for cod, haddock and other groundfish, bait for lobstermen and sardines for human consumption.
Today, the herring resource supports commercial and recreational fisheries with a value of more than a billion dollars as well as an ecotourism sector that includes whale watching, birding and boating.
But intense commercial fishing threatens these fish and all that depend upon them. Since the mid-1990s, industrial-scale midwater trawlers — ships towing fine-mesh nets as wide as a football field and five stories tall — have relentlessly fished the region’s waters. Today these industrial ships, which came to New England in the mid 1990s, catch well over 150 million pounds of herring each year, accounting for more than 80 percent of the region’s total herring catch.
“This report documents just how far the regulation of the herring fleet is lagging behind the rapid changes this fishery has undergone,” said Peter Baker, director of the Herring Alliance. “In 1990, there were no mid-water trawlers fishing these waters and now they catch well over 150 million pounds of herring each year. Yet the fishery continues to be treated as the small-scale fleet it once was.”
The report finds that in spite of the potential for midwater trawlers to capture and kill nearly all forms of sea life in their path — ranging from haddock, seals, seabirds, tuna and severely depleted river herring — these industrial-scale ships are surprisingly under-monitored.
Among the report’s findings:
- Oversight of New England’s herring trawl fleet is insufficient. Government observers have historically monitored just three percent of the region’s trips, compared with Alaska, where observers are required onboard for 30 to 100 percent of fishing trips.
- Current rules include loopholes allowing herring trawlers to dump nets loaded with non-target species– a wasteful practice which obscures the true picture of what these trawls are netting.
- The Gulf of Maine is being overburdened by herring trawlers. Its inshore waters are home to just 18 percent of the region’s total herring population but are the source of 60 percent of the herring catch.
- National Marine Fisheries Service does not adequately take into account the changing needs of predators as depleted fish stocks rebuild, which could lead to shortage of forage for important marine species such as whales, seabirds, striped bass, tuna and cod.
“With little federal oversight and almost no accountability, mid-water trawlers have operated in the shadows for too long,” said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming, a contributor to today’s report. “The current rules undermine efforts to protect the New England fish stocks and preserve a livelihood for future generations of fishermen.”
The report recommends such common sense reforms as:
- Ending midwater trawling within 50 miles of shore and in areas closed to groundfishermen.
- Instituting a shore-based monitoring system with real-time catch and bycatch monitoring
- Requiring 100 percent observer coverage
- Banning at-sea dumping and requiring on-board sampling of all catch including discards
- Determining the needs of herring predators and establishing a set-aside of the resource for predators
“As we work to rebuild depleted populations of ocean predators such as tuna, haddock and cod, it is imperative that we ask fishery managers to put forage first by making conservation of prey for predators the primary objective of managing forage fisheries such as the Atlantic herring fishery,” said Pam Lyons Gromen, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “The New England Fishery Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission must account for the fact that herring is a keystone species in the New England ecosystem and of great importance, not simply as food fish but as fish food, too.”
The issue has galvanized New England’s fleet of small-scale fishermen, eco-tourists, and conservationists. Last fall, the New England Fisheries Management Council received more than 10,000 public comments calling for reform of the herring fishery. And represented by the nonprofit public interest law firm Earthjustice, Maine groundfishermen are currently in federal court challenging an illegal double standard which allows midwater trawlers to fish in areas closed to nearly all other fishermen.
Today’s report comes as the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Services is considering public input on its Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. The report is meant to educate and empower the public to participate in this input period, which runs through June 30, 2008. More information about the scoping process can be found at: http://www.nefmc.org/herring/index.html and at www.herringalliance.org.
A copy of today’s report is available at http://www.herringalliance.org/images/stories/herring_alliance_report_out_of_balance.pdf and a version complete with citations may also be downloaded from the Herring Alliance website at www.herringalliance.org
Watch an eight-minute video produced by the National Geographic Society explaining the problem in the herring trawl fishery: