Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Herring Industry’s Abuse of Resource is a Big Deal

Pair trawlers off the coast of Rhode Island

Mid water trawlers fishing in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island in January 2012

Last week a few media outlets in New England briefly noted that NOAA officials had closed the Atlantic herring fishery in a portion of waters adjacent to Cape Cod’s eastern shore. In Maine, where most of the herring catch ends up as bait for the lobster industry, the news was shrugged off as “not a big deal.” After all, there’s still a lot of ocean left to fish for herring.

But Cape Cod Times writer Doug Fraser correctly reports that the activity of the industrial herring fleet is a very big deal for the other fishermen plying those waters. That’s because the massive nets of the herring trawl vessels once again blew through the quota for this sensitive area, scooping up 160 percent of the allotted catch. This is the third time in six years that the industry has greatly exceeded its quota in the area, known as herring management area 1B.   

Fraser writes of eyewitnesses reporting that “eight large vessels, operating in pairs, were towing large nets the size of football fields between them and cleaning out the herring just a few miles east of Cape Cod.”

The story notes that herring are a key forage species in the ocean food web, converting plankton into protein and in turn feeding species such as tuna, cod, striped bass, seabirds and whales. The Cape’s fishermen worry that the herring fleet is depleting the forage resource in the region “driving important species such as striped bass and bluefin tuna farther offshore, out of the reach of the Cape’s small-boat fishermen.”

The story also quotes Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries Deputy Director David Pierce, who voices concern about the possible bycatch. Pierce notes that river herring (a federal “species of concern”), striped bass, haddock, and other species are known to be in the area the herring fleet was heavily trawling.

The Atlantic herring fishing industry has once again demonstrated an unwillingness to fish within its limits and regulators have shown they are unable to enforce the rules on the use of this public resource.

Whether or not fishermen consider this a “big deal” seems to depend on whether they’re on the supply or demand end of the herring fishery. For those whose waters are being hit hardest, experience tells them the stakes are high.


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