New England Fisheries

Keeping Watch: Another attempt to monitor the largest vessels fishing our waters

A mid-water trawler that fishes for Atlantic herring in New England waters.

The nation’s most-widely read daily newspaper recently took a close look at fisheries observers, focusing on the problems New England has with monitoring the catch. The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Levitz reported on the tensions between fishermen and the independent, on-board observers who keep track of the amount and type of sea life netted, as required by federal fisheries law.

It’s a timely issue, as the New England Fishery Management Council is poised once again to address the inadequate monitoring of a major fishery—the midwater trawl vessels of the Atlantic herring fleet.

As the Journal reported, fishermen occasionally bristle at having observers on their boats. But they also know that we simply can’t make good decisions about our fisheries if we don’t know what’s happening on the water. Without an accurate assessment of fishing effort, mortality, and bycatch, fisheries management is akin to flying in the dark.

Nowhere is this more pressing than with the industrial trawlers making up the Atlantic herring fleet. These are among the largest vessels working the coast, capable of pulling in half a million pounds of sea life in a single tow. Fishermen have long been concerned about the effect this has on the marine food web when the prey fish needed by cod, tuna, and other commercially important fish are removed. And there is great concern about the unintended catch that can end up in the massive nets of the midwater trawlers, from river herring to juvenile groundfish such as haddock.

While there has been some progress in getting more observers on board these boats—up to about a third of vessel trips observed now compared to minimal coverage a few years ago—full coverage is needed. That’s why a broad range of stakeholders invested years of effort to develop a strong package of reforms to increase monitoring and reduce bycatch. The product of that work, known as Amendment 5 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, called for 100% monitoring of the catch at sea, restrictions on dumping catch, and a requirement to weigh all catch brought to shore.

Last summer the council voted overwhelmingly for this measure. However, NOAA fisheries—which has oversight over council actions—rejected most of it over cost concerns. The proposal included a cost sharing agreement with the industry paying at least $325 toward the daily expense of on-board observers, but NOAA cited “budget uncertainties” that kept the agency from paying for any increased observer coverage.

Now frustrated fishermen are trying again. At its Nov. 20 meeting in Newport, RI, the New England council is set to debate an emergency measure to either fund 100% observer coverage and address dumping of catch or suspend operation of the midwater trawlers. This emergency measure is an effort to salvage years of work and get the Amendment 5 proposal back on track. If it fails, we’ll continue to be in the dark about what’s really happening with one of the most controversial fishing fleets fishing our coast.


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