New England Fisheries

What is Localized Depletion and How Do We Address It?

From Narragansett, you can see some of the biggest fishing vessels on the East Coast, called midwater trawlers, fishing for herring. They drag nets as long as a football field through the water, taking tons of fish out of the water. These industrial trawlers are primarily catching Atlantic herring, a small, oily fish that is the main source of food for many predators including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, bluefish, striped bass, sharks, skates, terns, puffins, and humpback whales. Taking so many herring out of the water in a short time could decimate the local populations of these important forage fish, which could harm the entire ecosystem.

“Localized depletion” refers to a situation where concentrated fishing – in this case by midwater trawlers – takes too many fish out of too small an area in too short a time. It has biological impacts when it affects the normal age structure (removing too many older, fertile fish) or the genetic diversity (losing a genetically distinct sub-population) of a species. It has ecological impacts when it wipes out all the prey for a dependent predator and that predator leaves the area. And it has economic impacts when other fisheries, such as commercial fishing for cod and recreational fishing for striped bass, as well as eco-tourism businesses like whale watching, are forced to move.

But there are proposed changes that would keep these large boats, using this highly efficient gear, farther offshore. The New England Fishery Management Council is considering a year-round “buffer zone” 50 miles from the coast that would ensure large industrial trawlers stay away from sensitive areas close to shore.  A 50-mile zone, with no midwater trawl fishing off the coast of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, would create protections for all nearshore New England waters, connecting an existing closure in the Gulf of Maine with this new area further south.

Buffer Would Protect an Entire Ecosystem

Implementing a 50-mile buffer zone year-round would have long-term benefits. The buffer would protect future generations of herring, because this species spawns closer to shore. When trawls come through these spawning sites, it’s a double whammy, taking out both the adult herring trying to reproduce, and their eggs. With the buffer, both would be protected. And it’s not just fish: larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals also depend on herring for food.

Protections Would Provide Economic Benefits, Too

Beyond the ecosystem, the buffer zone would also benefit recreational and commercial fishing businesses as well as coastal tourism. Without herring to eat, the cod, tuna, and lobster that commercial fishers are after or the striped bass and bluefish recreational fishers are chasing won’t be in waters close to shore. The wildlife tours hoping to see whales, puffins, and dolphins won’t find them nearby if there isn’t herring for these marine mammals and seabirds to eat.

Similar Actions Have Been Taken All Over the World

Time and area closures, like the one proposed here, have been used as tools to prevent localized depletion all over the world. For example, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission enacted a harvest cap in response to concerns about localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay caused by the purse seine fishery.

There are plenty of other examples. NOAA Fisheries established no trawl zones around stellar sea lions to protect them from competition with Alaska groundfish fisheries for their prey.  The Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources implemented measures in the Southern Ocean krill fishery to avoid localized depletion and protect its role in the ecosystem. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority implemented regulations to protect localized depletion of sea cucumbers.

And in 2015, the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries reduced the amount of squid available south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to protect the forage base for other species and anglers. In Canada, they even have a policy on new fisheries for forage species that explicitly acknowledges the need to manage forage differently to protect against localized depletion.

It’s critical to the health of Atlantic herring, the ecosystem, and many fishing and tourism industries, that the New England Fishery Management Council adopt the 50-mile buffer zone.  It makes sense to keep this industrial gear further offshore.


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