Herring overfishing has Maine fishermen over barrel

Posted Nov. 22, 2009, at 7:59 p.m.

The Maine fishing economy is now almost entirely dependent on a single fishery — lobster. I participate in this fishery, and I also fish for groundfish. Lobster fishermen like me need bait, and most of the bait we use is herring. But herring are also the lynchpin holding the ocean food chain together.

Everything we catch eats herring, including the cod and haddock I catch and bring to Mainers through our community-supported fishery. Yet we continue to think there are so many large schools of herring out there that populations would never collapse. However, they did collapse in 1976, because of overfishing by foreign mid-water trawlers, and it took more than a decade for stocks to rebuild. Now it looks as though herring are in a sea of trouble again, and that has us lobstermen over a barrel.

The problem is that fisheries scientists have discovered that there is a great deal of uncertainty in how much herring there are, and accordingly they are recommending reduced catch limits for the next three years. What this translates into is that there might not be enough herring to supply our bait needs, and this is a huge issue for Maine’s largest fishery.

This assessment is of great concern to me as both a lobster fisherman and a groundfish fisherman, and I am worried about its effect on our coastal communities. But what is most troubling is that the industrial-scale mid-water trawl herring industry is heatedly arguing to disregard this science.

If the science is correct and we overfish this resource, it could mean deeper cuts in following years. This would be a total disaster for all the fisheries off the coast of Maine, not just lobstering. If the best available science were not used in the herring fishery, what would stop other fisheries from following the same reasoning, and also start disregarding the science.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the best available science is mandatory. This applies to all fisheries. The herring fishery is not exempt regarding the best available science, and it is critical that science is used to ensure that a healthy herring resource is available in the future.

At the New England Fishery Management Council meeting last week, the council voted to support that process by following one of the three recommendations by the Science and Statistical Committee to set the amount of fish that the industry will be able to catch in 2010 at 106,000 metric tons. This is 39,000 metric tons less than last year and was in the middle of the range of options that the science committee presented. This recommendation now goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has ultimate decision-making authority.

These reductions are coming because we have a new fleet of industrial fishing vessels that doesn’t have enough monitoring to give us a clear picture of what is going on — either with the herring they catch or the other species such as groundfish that they catch by mistake. We need the council to finally finish developing a vigorous monitoring program for this fishery. The midwater trawl industry has fought this tooth and nail and already delayed it twice. It’s unfair that lobstermen have to bear the brunt of the problems caused by this nearly unmonitored fishing fleet. Thankfully, the council also voted to make monitoring this fleet a priority for its 2010 work schedule.

I see other solutions on the table, too. Economically, these huge ships don’t make sense for Maine. Most of the midwater trawl fleet does not even land its catch here, but rather takes its fish and money south to Massachusetts. We can get our bait from more sustainable gear types, such as our traditional Maine purse seiners and weir fishermen. We can use other kinds of bait like we did in the past, such as pogies (menhaden) or hard bait (groundfish “racks” or skeletons). This past year, all of the fish racks from the Port Clyde fish plant where Port Clyde Fresh Catch is processed were used by the Port Clyde Lobster Coop for lobster bait.

We all need thriving herring populations, otherwise we will lose everything we have. We need to follow the science advice we have now because the cost of overfishing herring is way too high in the long run.

Gary Libby of Port Clyde is a lobster and groundfish fisherman. He is a member of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association.

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