News stories in New England about fishing often pit conservationists and fishermen against each other over how many fish should be caught, or play up every instance in which a private citizen bemoans government intervention. But today there is a much more compelling story — on which both fishermen and conservationists agree — and on June 20, regulators will meet in Portland to decide what happens next.
What’s brought common cause, and the involvement of the New England Fishery Management Council, is the need to hold industrial-scale herring trawlers accountable for what they take — and what they waste. Since 2007, New England’s traditional commercial fishermen, lobstermen, anglers, conservationists, whale watch companies and others have demanded that federal regulators adopt measures to monitor and cap the catch of herring by giant vessels fishing.
Industrial herring trawlers, which arrived in New England about two decades ago, catch hundreds of millions of pounds of sea herring every year. In the process, they incidentally kill and waste countless other animals. This can include marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales and important fish species such as bluefin tuna, striped bass, haddock and river herring. These trawlers are the largest vessels on the East Coast and can hold up to a million pounds of fish. They use finely meshed nets as long and wide as a football field, scooping up everything in their path. Often, two of these ships tow a net between them in a practice known as pair trawling, multiplying their destructive power.
In the 1970s, a fleet of foreign industrial trawlers came to New England and caught so many herring that the entire stock crashed. Soon after, stocks of fish that depend on herring as a primary food source began to decline, such as striped bass, cod and bluefin tuna. In 1976, Congress passed what is now called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to phase out foreign fleets in our waters. Many people now fear that history is repeating itself, but this time with ships flying the Stars and Stripes.
The current numbers of cod and river herring are near all-time lows. Stocks of sea herring, tuna and striped bass all are under high fishing pressure and cannot afford further loss from bycatch and threats to their food source. Yet the industrial herring trawl fleet continues to hammer away, with little government oversight and no limit on the amount of important fish, such as river herring, that they are allowed to discard as waste.
To get this fleet under control, federal fishery regulators are considering some common-sense measures, including capping the amount of river herring they can kill each year, and keeping them out of cod nursery grounds, where cod fishermen are barred from fishing.
Other measures on the table include a requirement to make all catch available for inspection by federal observers, and that all fish killed by industrial trawlers must be weighed and counted against their quotas.
These measures have widespread support up and down New England’s coast. Hundreds of fishermen and conservationists have shown up together at public hearings to demand that the rules be adopted. Federal regulators, led by state officials from the five coastal New England states, must heed the unified voice of fishermen and conservationists in our call to hold industrial trawlers accountable for what they are doing to our oceans and our fish stocks — before it’s too late.
Peter Baker directs the Northeast Fisheries Program for the Pew Environment Group.