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Haggling Over Herring
August 01, 1999
The flash of sunlight reflected off of a school of herring caught in a weir or the bunt of a stop seine was once a familiar sight along the coast of Maine on a summer morning. Fishermen, wet and bleary-eyed from a night in a seine dory or sardine carrier, reckoned their catches by the hogshead (63 gallons). The fish went to local canneries to be packed by women working for piecework wages, and the cuttings from the factories went for lobster bait.
Today, four or five sardine canneries, fourteen weirs located in eastern Washington County, and a few stop seiners scattered along the coast are all that remain of a once flourishing and sustainable industry. “If the inshore fishery ever comes back, all our stop seines will be rotten and nobody will remember how to do it,” said Jeremy Cates, a 23 year old lobsterman fishing out of Cutler, Maine. Herring weirs and stop seines were made obsolete by the advent of purse seining in the 80s, and now the purse seiners are threatened by more efficient technology: mid-water trawlers.
A resurgence of the inshore fishery is unlikely, and right now Cates’s main concern is in keeping the herring fishery – critical to his lobster business -from moving any further offshore than it has.
Cates was among the more than 60 fishermen, regulators, and scientists who met with Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe in Stonington on June 30. The group, comprised of individuals from a cross section of Maine’s fisheries, who had traveled from as far as Kittery and Eastport, called on the commissioner to take emergency measures to save what they said was the last major spawning aggregation of herring in the Gulf of Maine.
According to the fishermen who met with LaPointe, mid-water trawlers and pair trawlers such as the Providian, a 113-foot, 3,000 horsepower boat with a fish hold capacity of 1,000,000 pounds, were at that time working on Schoodic Ridges, only eight miles east of Mount Desert Rock. Dana Rice, organizer of the meeting, claimed that mid-water boats, designed and intended to work offshore on Georges Bank, are plundering a resource that belongs to Maine’s coastal communities.
“I believe there’s something in the Sustainable Fisheries Act [SFA] that calls for the protection of fishing communities,” he said.
Current assessments peg herring stocks at their highest levels in the last thirty years, but landings have been sliding in Area 1A (the waters of the Gulf of Maine up to about 50 miles offshore). Over half of 1998’s landings of 81,701 metric tons came out of Area 1A and over half of those fish were caught by mid-water and pair trawlers. Mid-water trawlers overall landed 71% of the 1998 catch. LaPointe promised to call the owners of the mid-water trawlers and ask them to “back off.” Fishermen said they would endorse a shutdown of the whole fishery if that was what it took to get the mid-water boats off Schoodic Ridges.
“These boats have worked from east to west eating up the herring like a swarm of locust,” said Glenn Robbins, a thirty-year veteran of the herring fishery. “Now they’re working on the last good bunch of herring we’ve got.” Robbins stated that purse seiners like him could only fish at night when the fish came up off bottom.
“Our own inefficiency made us sustainable,” he said. “And if we catch fish that are too small or spawning, lots of times we can let them go and most of them will live.” According to Robbins, mid-water trawlers can tow their nets at high speed almost anywhere in the water column, at any time of day, and whatever they catch is dead. “If they don’t have market for it, they pull the pucker string and dump it. When they do land it, half the catch is going for fish meal.” Robbins claimed he was in the process of rigging over to mid-water trawling as a last resort to stay competitive. “I’ve already got the nets,” he said, “but it would suit me fine if I never had to use them.”
Two weeks after the meeting with LaPointe, mid-water trawlers were still working on Schoodic Ridges, fishermen had backed down on their call to close Maine ports to herring from Area 1A, and Rice and Robbins were voicing their concerns at the July 13, New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) meeting in Portland.
Portland boat owner Jim Odlin spoke at the meeting and noted that seiners had dumped their share of herring in the past. “We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at each other,” he said. “This is not a resource problem, it’s an allocation issue.”
Tom Jordan, fleet manager for Stinson Canning Co., which owns two mid-water trawlers and buys from several others, disregarded the complaints that mid-water trawlers were ruining the near-shore fishery for purse seiners, jeopardizing several important fisheries, and wasting the product. “That’s bullshit,” said Jordan. “This is just a jealousy thing. Just because somebody says something, doesn’t make it true. I don’t believe what anyone says who is not in the fishery. You look at what science is saying, and they are saying there are more herring out there than there has been for 30 years, and that the resource is being underfished.” Dr. Ellen Pikitch, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Chair of the NEFMC’s Scientific and Statistical Committee, noted that there was a high degree of uncertainty in the stock assessment and consequent projections. “Currently the stock appears to be in good shape and fishing mortality appears to be below critical level.” But she added that fishing mortality in Area 1A was higher than other areas, and greater than target levels. “We therefore recommend that any increase in harvest be applied outside of Area 1A.”
Pikitch noted that very little is known about substocks of herring within the larger stock complex and that more information is needed if regulators hope to properly manage the resource. “We need to be careful,” she said. “We’ve been lucky in the past, let’s not blow it.”
“We came down here today to try and save the resource,” said Rice. “And I’m glad I did because the science is backing up what we’re saying.” Bill MacDonald of the Island Institute is part of a team of fishermen and scientists working, with the support of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to find out more about herring spawning behavior and eventually identify distinct substocks of herring. “It’s possible,” said MacDonald, “to have a large biomass of herring that looks healthy on paper, but still have some substocks being overfished.” MacDonald points to the Canadian method of managing each substock individually so that no particular area gets overfished. “Herring are the linchpin of the ecosystem,” he said. “We can’t afford to mess up the management of this species. The consequences to the sardine industry, lobstermen, weir fishermen, stop seiners, and other fisheries would be devastating.”
Downeast lobstermen like Jeremy Cates faced serious bait shortages last year, and many believe that if the mid-water trawlers are allowed to remain in Area 1A, the 45,000 metric ton quota will be gobbled up before the most productive fishing begins in autumn. “If the quota gets caught up, we’re hearing bait prices could be anywhere from $18 to $28 a bushel just when our fishing is getting started,” said Cates. Ground fishermen, tuna fishermen, and purse seiners believe that what mid-water trawling does to the structure of the stocks is even more harmful than the amount of fish they take.
“Our gripe is that they go from area to area and take the cream,” said Lexi Krause, a Monhegan tuna fisherman. “Tuna stay in an area if there are thick concentrations of bait. It hurts us to see these guys 4 or 5 miles off the island breaking up the schools. The tuna just move through and don’t stay. “The seiners are just a drop in the bucket compared to mid-water trawlers,” said Krause, pointing out an obvious trend. “In a time when everyone is limited, big business is moving right in.” Krause and many others wonder why, if the herring are so thick on Georges, are the mid-water boats working inshore.
“Economics,” said Stinson’s Tom Jordan. “When you can land 200 tons only 3 hours away, why steam 15 hours to Georges? Plus we get a better quality product.”
“The plan is to try to encourage more fishing in Areas 1B and 3, [Georges Bank],” said Bill MacDonald. But the boats are working on the closest stocks first, in spite of concern about the health of those near-shore stocks. “The current situation is not what managers intended.”
“I don’t want to put anybody out of business,” said Dana Rice. “What I’d like to see is a three year moratorium on mid-water trawling in the Gulf of Maine, until we find out what kind of impact this gear has on the resource and the environment.”
Downeast weir and stop seiners, already hurt by purse seiners, are particularly concerned about the efficiency of mid-water gear. As increasing percentages of the quota are landed, limits on fishing days will be triggered.
These low impact fisheries rely on the fish coming in to the weirs or coves where they can be caught. The fish might be here today and gone tomorrow. If the stop seiners miss their chances for big sets because of closed days, it could kill an industry that is barely surviving.
David Turner of Eastport was unimpressed with the uncertainty of the science, and very unhappy with the lack of consideration the council had shown for the fixed gear and stop seine fishermen he buys product from.
“It’s unfortunate you people didn’t pay attention to the probability of the impact of these regulations when you were drafting your plan,” he said to council members in Portland. “You are doing a good job of ethnic cleansing Downeast.”
Jim Odlin and Tom Jordan are not worried. They feel certain that even if individual stocks get fished down, the overall health of the resource is strong and is likely to remain so. History has shown that individual stocks can be wiped out and that they can recover, and the mid-water boats can go wherever the fish are.
But if the inshore stock collapses, the burden on cod fishermen and tuna fishermen, already operating under strict rebuilding plans, may be too great to bear, and the thought of paying outrageous prices for bait when herring stocks are at an all time high seems inexcusable to most lobstermen.
Dana Rice pointed out that allowing mid-water boats to fish close to shore flies in the face of provisions in the SFA that protect fishing communities’ rights to their historical fisheries. But that argument could make things difficult for the purse seiners too, if coastal communities stake their claim on the herring.
Norb Lemieux, another Cutler lobsterman who spoke at the June 30 Stonington meeting suggested that if the resource was in trouble it was only common sense to preserve the most sustainable methods such as stop seining and “ax the rest.”
“The last time they stop seined fish in Cutler Harbor was 1980,” said Jeremy Cates. “I’ve never even seen it done.” Cates is not blaming anybody for the lack of fish inshore, but “I wouldn’t mind seeing them come back,” he said.