Herring fishermen who operate in the state don’t think they are harming groundfish recovery, so they are angling to be involved in a federal lawsuit aimed at banning their trawlers from fish spawning grounds.
The Sustainable Fisheries Coalition filed a request Thursday to achieve friend of the court status in a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Justice by the national environmental group Earthjustice.
“The science supports that there’s not a need to close the area to herring midwater trawlers,” said Eldon Greenberg, an attorney for the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition.
Greenberg said the government’s brief is due on June 8, when he will file a brief in support of the government.
His clients in the coalition include four major fishing companies that operate off the Maine coast and Georges Bank, in addition to other locations. Those companies are Cape Seafoods Inc., and Irish Venture Inc. of Gloucester, Mass., Lund’s Fisheries Inc. of Cape May, N.J., and Norpel Inc. of New Bedford, Mass.
Their trawlers fish for herring, which swims in the middle of the water column, but some Maine fishermen say that too many groundfish are a bycatch of the herring boats. That is why Earthjustice is suing to reverse a 1998 decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which allowed herring boats to fish in closed ground-fish waters with the reasoning that the activity wouldn’t be disruptive to recovering groundfish stocks.
The herring fishery is allowed a haddock bycatch of 542,000 pounds, or 0.2 percent of the total allowable catch for the groundfish species. So far this season, trawlers have landed less than 10 percent of their allowable catch, according to the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition. The season ends in April.
“We assume that the government is going to defend its action, and we’re going to defend the government’s action,” Greenberg said, adding that divvying up the fishing grounds is a matter better left to the fisheries service.
But Roger Fleming, an attorney with Earthjustice, disagrees with that. Groundfishermen, including his clients from Port Clyde’s Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, have their catch tightly regulated by the government.
“We are very confident about our case, and the merits of our case,” Fleming said. “The midwater trawlers are allowed to fish in these areas with the understanding that they’ll catch a negligible amount of haddock. But 542,000 pounds — midcoast fishermen caught just 500,000 pounds of groundfish in total. My clients don’t think it’s acceptable.”
The catch on the herring industry’s bycatch is based on the entire Northeast fishing area, Fleming said, but different rules should apply to groundfish spawning grounds.
“It’s always a challenge to overcome an agency decision,” he said. “But these guys are not focusing at all on the larger picture, which is that it’s unfair to the midcoast fishermen.”