A Maine fishing industry group hopes it can convince a federal regulatory council to reconsider rules that permit herring fishing in closed groundfish areas when the council meets next month in Portsmouth.

In the meantime, Port Clyde-based Midcoast Fishermen’s Association plans to continue pursuing its lawsuit against the federal Department of Commerce over the herring fishing rules, according to an attorney involved in the case.

Roger Fleming said Thursday the group is trying to get federal regulators to not allow herring boats in areas that are closed to groundfishing. Fleming is a Maine-based attorney with Earthjustice, a national environmental group representing MFA and Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in the lawsuit.

A federal judge has set a Jan. 26 deadline for parties in the lawsuit to submit a progress report, Fleming said, but MFA plans to ask for an extension in hopes the New England Fisheries Management Council might address the issue when it meets Feb. 9.

“We like doing things through the council,” he said.

The lawsuit is aimed at reversing a 1998 decision by National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce, to allow herring boats to fish in closed groundfish areas, according to Fleming. Federal regulators reasoned that herring boats do not affect groundfish species because their nets are in the middle of the surface-to-bottom water column, rather than at the bottom where groundfish species are found.

Fleming said, however, there is 10 years’ worth of data that demonstrates herring trawlers do affect groundfish species.

“They do actually catch groundfish and don’t always fish in the middle of the water column, either,” Fleming said. “Letting these big midwater trawlers fish with their fine-mesh nets where it’s known there are groundfish just doesn’t make any sense.”

He said that through its lawsuit, MFA recently tried to compel federal regulators to consider these data, but a judge denied the motion Dec. 30. Fleming said he expects the issue of the data to come up again when oral arguments in the lawsuit are heard in court, which is expected to happen this spring or early summer.

“It will depend on what happens at the council meeting on the 9th,” Fleming said.

“We don’t view [the judge’s denial] as a big setback.”

Port Clyde fisherman Glen Libby, chairman of MFA, said Thursday he plans to go to the NEMFC meeting next month to discuss the herring issue and new federal rules that reduce the number of days groundfishing boats can be at sea. He said his group has been taking steps to expand its market by creating cooperative buying clubs in various Maine communities, but such measures alone cannot restore the vitality of the groundfish industry. There needs to be better regulation that helps both fishermen and the resource, he said.

“We don’t have our hopes set too high,” Libby said of the coming meeting. “I think we need to go there and make a statement, at least.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....