A group of Maine fishermen is suing the federal government in an effort to ban herring trawlers from groundfish spawning areas.
The fishermen decided Wednesday to pursue the lawsuit against the United States Department of Commerce, according to an attorney from Earthjustice, a national environmental group that represents the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance of Saco and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association of Port Clyde.
“The guys in our organization feel that if we can’t go out there and drag, these other guys shouldn’t be able to go there and drag,” Glen Libby, chairman of the MFA, said Thursday.
The matter will be decided by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Roger Fleming of Earthjustice said the lawsuit had been filed previously but was in a “holding pattern” while lawyers for the groundfishermen waited to see whether the concerns would be addressed by the New England Fisheries Management Council.
They were not, so the lawsuit has moved forward, he said.
The fishermen would like to reverse a 1998 decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce. At that time regulators allowed herring boats to fish in closed groundfish areas because it wouldn’t be disruptive to groundfishing.
Fleming said that the so-called “midwater trawlers” fish in the middle of the water column — in theory, at least.
“But they often fish at the bottom of the water column in the daytime,” Fleming said. “We’ve learned that the ships are capable of catching groundfish, and they do catch groundfish.”
Fleming said the midcoast fishermen want to remove midwater trawlers from closed areas, or allow them to fish there only under “highly regulated” circumstances.
Allowing the trawlers to ply the closed waters — even if they’re chasing herring — negatively affects groundfish, Libby said.
“You’ve got areas that are basically spawning ground,” Libby said. “We’re in favor of not having any activity at all in these types of areas.”
Libby said that midwater trawler dragging removes a food source in the spawning area, and also creates a large bycatch problem.
“With a midwater trawler, they can fish day or night, and those fish are down on the bottom where the groundfish are,” he said. “With those huge nets, anything they catch in them gets towed around and the fish get smothered. There’s the potential there for massive destruction.”