ROCKLAND, Maine — Some New England herring fishermen added their names last week to a federal lawsuit that argues that trawlers should not be allowed to drag their nets through groundfish spawning areas, which are closed to other types of fishing.
“To let these guys fish in a closed area is really inexcusable,” said Glenn Robbins of Eliot, who owns a purse seine vessel based out of Rockland. “They’re destroying the groundfish industry. The stock will never rebuild, as long as you’re letting people in there with trawlers.”
But the midwater trawl fishermen targeted by the lawsuit feel that their fleet does not negatively affect federally protected groundfish stocks and that the suit is essentially a red herring.
“It is a highly politicized issue, and there is not enough data to support these assertions,” said Mary Beth Tooley of Camden, spokeswoman for the Small Pelagic Group. Three of the fishing vessels in that group have their home ports in Maine, including the Starlight of Vinalhaven and the Sunlight of Rockland, which use long nets to trawl for herring in the middle of the water column. Much of their catch is used as bait by Maine lobster fishermen and some is sold to a Maine sardine cannery, Tooley said.
Robbins fishes for herring, too, and catches 20 million to 25 million tons a year — but he fishes with a purse seine. That method essentially uses two boats to pull a net around a desired school of fish swimming close to the surface of the water. Groundfish bycatch using this method is minimal, Robbins said. He used to trawl for herring, but got reprimanded for catching groundfish. He also didn’t like what he saw.
“It was too efficient. We got too good at our game sometimes, destroying stocks,” Robbins said. “I don’t want to wipe the stock out.”
The lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce was filed late last year by the environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Port Clyde’s Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, a group of groundfisherman. The association had petitioned the fisheries service to halt midwater trawlers for herring fishing in areas that are closed to groundfishing, but the petition was denied. The government regulates 19 species of groundfish, including cod and haddock, as one group.
Robbins and a handful of other herring fishermen from Massachusetts were granted “friend of the court” legal status in the lawsuit by a federal court. Just over a month ago, Tooley said, a group of trawler owners from Maine to New Jersey who call themselves the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition filed their own “friend of the court” brief in support of the government’s case.
Trawler owners maintain that their style of fishing is necessary to catch enough bait to support the lobster industry and that the lawsuit greatly exaggerates the groundfish that are accidentally caught in their nets. According to Tooley, the trawlers use carefully designed nets that are intended to let larger fish and marine mammals escape unscathed, she said. Also, the vessels are legally allowed to catch a certain percentage of the total allowable catch for some groundfish species such as haddock. Haddock stocks have been rebuilt, according to the Island Institute.
Tooley said she anticipates that the federal court will reach its decision on the matter sometime this fall and doesn’t expect that there will be a hearing.
“Clearly, from all the available data we have, they are not destroying groundfish resources,” she said.
But Robbins, who said he has been fishing in Maine for nearly 50 years, said that trawlers “messed up” the fishery in Ireland and that he’s watching it happen here.
“Since they’ve come in, we’ve seen depletion of the stock,” Robbins said. “Trawlers kill herring real good, but they also get a lot of codfish.”