Gulf of Maine fishing needs a revival

Posted Dec. 31, 2010, at 7:07 p.m.

The Gulf of Maine is an enormous geographical area, extending from Nova Scotia on the north to Cape Cod on the south. The combination of varied habitat and the nutrients furnished by dozens of great rivers and hundreds of smaller ones made it historically one of the richest biological regions on earth. It was once the home of incredible numbers of cod, haddock, hake, halibut and other bottom-dwelling “groundfish,” as well as herring, pollock and other resident species, and its rich forage base also attracted vast schools of migratory fish including mackerel, striped bass, bluefish, swordfish, bluefin tuna and many species of marine mammals, including seals, porpoises and whales.

Fishing ports grew up in Halifax and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, St. John, New Brunswick, Portland, Portsmouth, N.H., and Gloucester and Boston, Mass. Hundreds of smaller coastal towns in the Maritime Provinces and New England also sent out fleets of fishing craft, which supported stable local communities and were the basis for thriving commerce and the foundation of prosperity.

From the earliest colonial times to the present day, the biological riches of the Gulf of Maine have been under unceasing assault. Today the fishery of the Gulf of Maine is but a shadow of its former self. The result is impoverished communities and the destruction of a way of life. Those few commercial fishermen who have hung on to their way of life to eke out a difficult living face a mind-numbing set of rules limiting the number of days at sea, types of gear, and the timing and location of efforts.

The elements of the assault on the Gulf of Maine’s resources are well known and have been thoroughly documented. They include overfishing on numerous marine and anadromous stocks that were thought to be inexhaustible.

The erection of dams on the major rivers in the region destroyed the enormous runs of Atlantic salmon, shad, alewives, blueback herring, sturgeon and other species, which reproduce in fresh water but migrate to sea to grow large before returning to repeat the cycle.

Pollution from the discharge of municipal and industrial wastes rendered rivers and coastal waters unfit for habitation by many marine species.

The indiscriminate destruction of wetlands caused many species dependent upon coastal marshes for spawning and rearing habitat either to be lost or severely depleted.

None of these problems went unnoticed at the time that they were taking place. As far back as the turn of the 18th century, there are numerous records documenting the loss of fisheries. Dozens, if not hundreds, of petitions and complaints were made to governing authorities setting forth the dismay and outrage of citizens at the wanton destruction of resources upon which they were dependent for a livelihood.

It was not until after the end of World War II, that things began to change. The United States had become the world’s greatest industrial power. At the same time it became increasingly clear that the price for prosperity in terms of harm to water, air, wildlife and human health was very high and growing higher by leaps and bounds.

In the three decades between 1950 and 1980, Republican administrations supported the enactment of such landmark legislation as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and such federal agencies as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) were given the legal tools and funding to start restoration of lost or depleted fishery resources.

Federal and state scientists and policymakers have understood from the beginning that restoration of the groundfish population in the Gulf of Maine is dependent upon an adequate forage base.

One of the keystone species for the foundation of the forage base is the alewife. This tiny fish is a native of the North Atlantic from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. It is a member of the herring family. It seldom grows to more than 8 to 12 inches.

In precolonial times the numbers of alewives would be better counted in terms of tens or even hundreds of thousands of tons than in terms of individual fish.

From early colonial times alewives have been economically important. Their abundance made them suitable as a food source, eaten fresh or smoked. Many coastal communities provided alewives to their poor or elderly citizens for sustenance. They are widely used as lobster bait.

Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, with the support of NMFS, has been working at the task of restoring alewife populations in Maine’s major river systems for almost 40 years. There have been bumps in the road. Even though alewives are a native species, in the St. Croix watershed they are seen by smallmouth bass outfitters and guides as undesirable intruders. But scientific studies have repeatedly shown that in fact alewives do not compete with or prey upon smallmouth bass, and that in fact, bass thrive upon a diet of alewives.

And what is the lesson to be learned from these efforts? That it is a proper role of government to work together with private groups in support of efforts to restore a viable commercial food fishery which in turn will revive the stability and prosperity of local communities that are supported by a thriving commerce. It all boils down to good jobs supported by a healthy environment.

Restoration of alewives is only a part, but it is a very large part, of the restoration of a viable commercial food fishery.

Clinton B. Townsend has practiced law in Skowhegan for more than 50 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Rivers and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

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