Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

When the Herring Fleet Takes More than Just Herring

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

The New England Fishery Management Council will take up an emergency request from the Atlantic herring industry this week regarding limits on the amount of bycatch, or non-target species, the herring trawlers should be allowed. The council action comes as the herring fleet is attracting media scrutiny for the amount of sea life that ends up in their nets other than Atlantic herring.

This Associated Press story explains that this week’s council debate will concern the amount of haddock, a bottom-dwelling, or “groundfish” species, caught by the herring fleet. Jeff Kaelin, of Lund’s Fisheries of Cape May, New Jersey, told the AP that haddock are so abundant that “heavy recent bycatch isn’t a grave concern.”

But Maggie Raymond, executive director of the Associated Fisheries of Maine, disagreed, telling the AP that “groundfishermen are struggling, and they are concerned about someone else taking that fish.”

Raymond’s point takes on additional importance when you consider that groundfish are so scarce in New England that the fishery was declared a federal disaster just two years ago and some $33 million in federal aid has yet to be distributed. As Talking Fish has reported, as much as 10 percent of all the haddock caught in New England is already being taken as bycatch by the herring fleet, mostly when the haddock are juveniles.

But it’s not just haddock bycatch that has people concerned. Saltwater Sportsman conservation editor Rip Cunningham uses his recent column to explore the effect the herring fishery has on river herring, which are so severely depleted they are listed as a “species of concern” by federal regulators. Scientists say the at-sea bycatch of river herring is likely undermining recovery efforts, and Cunningham argues that more must be done to accurately assess this damage.

Cunningham is a former chair of the New England Fishery Management Council, so he knows what he’s talking about when he says, “It is likely that managers still do not have a good handle on the actual catch of river herring on the high seas. If the truth be told, there probably is not a good handle on bycatch in general in the northeast sea herring fishery.”

Even when only sea herring go into the nets of industrial-scale trawlers, there is reason for concern, as reporter Alison Fairbrother notes in this piece for TakePart, an online media outlet.

“The boats dwarfed all other vessels on the water,” Fairbrother writes, “their below-deck holds could store up to 1 million pounds of Atlantic herring, a slim, silvery forage fish that is used as bait in New England’s lobster industry.”

The demand for that bait, Fairbrother reports, is at odds with the needs of the rest of the ocean ecosystem. “Removing herring from the ocean to bait lobster traps takes dinner away from dolphins, seals, whales, striped bass, cod, bluefin tuna, and other marine life that depend on the herring for essential nutrition.”

Fishery managers have the task of ensuring that the action of one industry does not unduly damage the health of the sea and the other fishermen who depend on it. This is, after all, a public resource, and when the council meets this week they should keep in mind that the public will be watching.


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