New England’s Fishing Pathology

Herring are an important forage fish species. Photo: NOAA Fishwatch.

The industrial herring fleet recently overshot its quota for the herring management area 1B by some 60%. Sixty percent! That is like driving 104 mph in a 65 mph speed zone. This incident—and particularly the herring fleet’s response to it—are symptomatic of a deeper pathology in some of New England’s fisheries that should not be allowed to just fade away as another bad memory of a poorly managed fishery.

Seriously, is this the best this region can do with the biggest, newest and most high-tech boats? Is this the best that we can expect from a pair trawling herring fleet that swarms Council meetings with its lobbyists and even boasts two employees as members of the New England Council and the Mid-Atlantic Council?

Are there any circumstances under which a 60% quota overrun should be tolerable with a commodity-style fleet that harvests over 27% of the total landings in New England for only 2% of the gross revenues of New England fisheries? Perhaps most importantly, is this the best that a fleet will hold itself to even knowing that it is under the highest public scrutiny from other commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, whale watching operations, and conservationists? A sixty per cent overage in an area of chronic quota overruns?

I submit that this is the worst this region can do.

This was inexcusable and intolerable behavior for a modern fishing fleet. There is no justification that in this day and age of instantaneous electronic communications and in a fishery that involves so few boats that any fleet should manage itself in such a reckless manner, regardless of what the regulators and enforcers are up to or capable of controlling out on the water.

That 60% overage roughly equates to 3,813,997 adult sea herring,  give or take a couple hundred thousand, not to mention all the other catch of river herring, bass, haddock and other marine life that was, no doubt, in many of those unobserved haul-backs. It has likely disrupted many other fisheries that are dependent on having a good forage base in the area off Cape Cod. Notably, this quota was set to compensate for past quota overruns in the exact same area. The herring fleet has blown past the quota in that same area several times before.

And yet, I have yet to come across an ounce of mea culpa or even regret from the herring fleet, its representatives, or any of the seafood industry bloggers. To the contrary, one of the herring fleet’s council members publicly dismissed the issue, even suggesting—in true victim style—that it was the agency’s fault because “they couldn’t keep up” with tallying the catch. In that person’s view, the herring fleet was performing almost a public service for other fisheries at a time of high demand for herring that was far more important than staying within the limits the managers and scientists set. And those were the views of a sitting council member!

New England’s good fishermen suffer from the pathological behavior of New England’s bad fishermen. In this incident, the paired-trawl herring fleet acts and talks like it is above the law. Apparently, its representatives on the fishery management councils do as well. Frankly, I was startled to see such comments coming from a representative of the O’Hara fleet that generally holds itself up to high standards. Such behaviors and attitudes go far in explaining why some of New England’s fisheries have such a bad reputation around the country. There remains something fundamentally wrong when a fleet refuses to hold itself accountable to the rules that govern this treasured public resource.

Some council members and members of the public have already made calls to the managers and regulators that this fleet should tie up until there is 100% observer coverage of the pair trawl boats at sea. Perhaps this fleet should tie itself up to the docks until it can get its act together and start behaving and speaking more responsibly as a member of New England’s fishing community.


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