New England Fisheries

A Big Step for Our Little Fish

In the coming month, members of the New England Fishery Management Council will try to jumpstart a stalled effort to adequately monitor the activity of the midwater trawl vessels that fish for Atlantic herring.

The council was jolted into action by a controversial proposal during its last meeting in November when frustrated fishermen proposed a moratorium on midwater trawlers unless all herring vessels operated under the watch of a trained fisheries observer. While this motion failed, the debate it inspired was nothing short of a watershed moment for accountability within forage fisheries in New England.

But first, how did we get to the point where shutting down a fishery, due to accountability issues, would even be on the council agenda?

Last year, after almost five years of arduous work, the council submitted herring Amendment 5 to federal fisheries officials for analysis and approval. Unfortunately, when this new suite of regulations was finally approved by the federal officials, it was missing some of the most important components. At its core, Amendment 5 was an accountability amendment aimed at addressing concerns about the midwater trawl fishery and the significant impact this industry has on the marine ecosystem. The outcome of years of work from the council was a document that would require 100% monitoring (with the industry picking up part of the tab) and a restriction on the number of times the fleet could dump catch without it being sampled by an observer. These were arguably the two most important parts of this document and both were stripped out by the federal agency. Accountability provisions, which were the heart and purpose of the amendment and passed with nearly unanimous council approval, were gone.

As of November, the herring industry accounted for roughly 15% of all haddock caught in New England. Photo credit: Mike Laptew

To make matters worse, the herring fleet began catching far more haddock this past summer than had been documented in previous years.  Since haddock is an important groundfish species, this raised concerns among struggling groundfish fishermen about what was really happening within the herring fishery. The herring industry has a bycatch cap of 1% of the overall haddock allowable catch. That may not sound like much, but with the low catch rates within the groundfish industry and the high volume catch of the herring fleet, the herring industry accounted for roughly 15% of all haddock caught in New England at the time of the November meeting. To many fishermen the smaller net size used by the herring industry is even more concerning as many of the haddock being caught are smaller than those landed in the groundfish fishery. We are losing the next generation of fish before they can grow to adults.

It was this combination of high haddock bycatch and a lack of accountability in the herring fishery that motivated the motion to put a moratorium on the herring fishery until it could be adequately monitored. Frustrated groundfish fishermen and crew members of midwater trawlers packed the hearing room at the council’s November meeting. And this is when something really important happened for forage fish in New England waters.

Instead of fighting against accountability, the herring industry representatives actually asked the government and council to help find a way to make responsible monitoring a reality. Traditional advocates for full monitoring of the fleet—such as recreational anglers, groundfish fishermen and conservation groups—were joined by herring fishery members to ask for 100% observer coverage and a legal way to share the costs between industry and the federal government. This was the first time we have seen that happen in New England, and it represented a huge step forward in how we think about managing our fisheries.

The end result of the November meeting was anticlimactic. More meetings and an uncertain path lie ahead. But a shift has taken place, as the industry has made it clear that it agrees with monitoring. It’s now up to the council and federal officials to make this happen. Progress has been made and  should be acknowledged.

Ben Martens is Executive Director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.


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