National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published a final rule in the Federal Register today that outlines requirements for herring trawl ships accessing a closed area set aside for threatened groundfish populations. The area is southeast of Cape Cod and is closed to groundfish fishing because it is the spawning ground and refuge for juvenile fish such as cod and haddock. Herring trawl ships, which are up to 160 feet long and about to hold more than 1 million pounds of fish, pursue herring but are still allowed to fish in groundfish closed areas.
“Industrial herring trawl ships should not be allowed in any groundfish nursery areas under any circumstances,” says Gary Libby, groundfisherman from Midcoast Fishermen’s Association (MFA) in Port Clyde, Maine. “New England’s historic cod and haddock fishermen have sacrificed too long to let industrial trawlers from away ravage these sanctuaries. They are destroying our future.”
“The loopholes in this rule are so big you could sail a midwater trawl ship through them,” said Earthjustice attorney Roger Fleming, who is handling a related lawsuit for the MFA.
There are numerous loopholes in this final version of the rule which undermine its effectiveness. Instead of requiring ships to return back to port when dumping occurs, which discourages dumping bycatch and help ensure the monitoring of all catch including groundfish, now vessels can dump with broad discretion. For example a vessel operator can determine there is a mechanical problem and dump and fish in the closed area — which the old version of the rule had prohibited. The final rule will go into effect on Monday, November 2.
After revelations of large amounts of juvenile haddock bycatch by these industrial trawlers was discovered last October in this closed groundfish area, outcry from groundfish fishermen, conservationists, and the New England Fishery Management council prompted NMFS to initiate a rule making process to outline regulations for how industrial trawlers would be monitored when they access this closed area.
“This is less than a half measure because it does not even go as far as the council intended,” added Fleming.
Earthjustice, representing the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, filed a lawsuit against NMFS in December 2007, after the agency failed to evict the high-volume herring ships from areas identified as spawning grounds and sanctuaries for the region’s dwindling groundfish populations.