CHOIR: Coalition for the Atlantic Herring Fishery's Orderly, Informed, and Responsible Long-Term Development


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Herring Midwater Trawl Madness

November 05, 2006

By Rich Ruais (updated by Chris Weiner)

It seems like Atlantic herring just cannot get any respect. In the 1960s and early 1970s uncontrollable foreign fishing fleets crushed the offshore Georges Bank herring resource until the stock collapsed. Some scientists at that time believed the stock to be extirpated. But after the Magnuson Act was passed in 1976 with a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, the biomass began to rebuild rapidly in the 1980s. In 2003 the U.S. stock assessment estimated the stock complex biomass to be a stunning 1.80 million metric tons! But a Canadian assessment using the same database reported a biomass one-third the size estimated by U.S. scientists.

Fishery managers here in the U.S. are now dangerously ignoring the Canadian view of a much smaller biomass and have encouraged rapid development of a fleet of very large and efficient midwater pair and single trawl vessels to catch high quotas of the low valued herring. Many fishermen and herring scientists believe a biological and economic disaster is in the making or is already well underway, especially in the Gulf of Maine, because of the failure to follow precautionary herring management policies. The herring stock complex includes separate spawning stock components on Georges Bank and in coastal waters and near shore banks such as Jeffreys Ledge in the Gulf of Maine.

Here is what the herring midwater trawl controversy in the Northeast is all about.

Transition to Midwater Single & Pair Trawl Fleet

Prior to 1994 purse seine gear was the primary method of catching herring in New England waters. The traditional use of the herring product was for lobster bait and for canned sardine and other specialty products such as steaks and tidbits. In the mid to late 1990s NMFS scientists, apparently ecstatic to have a rebuilt resource, became quite vocal in support of fast development of the herring fishery. Scientists were heard to say that as much as a million metric tons a year could be taken for several years without impacting the biomass and that 400,000 tons might be the long-term sustainable yield.

These numbers quickly attracted the attention of businessmen from as far away as Ireland and Seattle and the equivalent of a herring “gold rush” was on for the next several years. In many cases, effort was relocated from places like Ireland where midwater trawling, a new and efficient method, had decimated the local stocks. Despite the importance of herring to the Gulf of Maine and the surrounding coast, and the real evidence of the damage these types of vessels were capable of (for example, just over the Hague Line in the Bay of Fundy, Canada had seen a herring stock collapse due to trawling almost 4 decades ago, and, ever since, have banned the gear), overzealous managers turned the overly optimistic herring science into action.

Between 1994-97 midwater trawl gear replaced purse seine gear as the primary gear and by 2003 midwater pair and single vessel trawlers were accounting for 70% of the herring catch in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Maine and for 81% of the total herring catch in the Northeast. To catch the enormous volume of herring promised by the scientists more efficient midwater trawls and larger vessels would be required particularly to fish the offshore waters of Georges Bank.

New herring processing plants in Gloucester and New Bedford were developed, with government financial support, to freeze herring for expanding overseas markets. In 2002 the 150’ Dona Martita and 115’ Nordic Explorer from the North Pacific made the journey through the Panama Canal to supply product to the New Bedford plant. In 2004 the former New England purse seiner Connie Jean (150’ with 1.2 million lb. fish hold capacity) was sold and came back from the Pacific after 10 years of tuna fishing to transport herring and mackerel from the fishing grounds to the New Bedford plant. While in 1996 there had been only 3 pair trawlers, by 2004 there were 16.

The results were highly predictable: by the end of the nineties, the massive trawler fleet had begin to change the Gulf of Maine from a marine wonderland to a marine desert.

Localized Herring Resource Depletion

Purse seine gear is generally rated by environmental groups as ecosystem friendly because the fish are brought to the boat alive and can be released if conditions such as small size or bycatch is present. Purse seine gear for herring also can only be fished at night when the herring are near and visible at the surface and the gear usually catches only a part of the herring assemblage available. There are multiple other factors that affect purse seining, including weather and tide, as well. Anyone who has fished around the seine fleet can tell you that can fish an area without wiping it out.

On the other hand, the midwater fleet has grown to 25 vessels with many of these in the 150’ size range and with fish holds capable of holding more than a million pounds of herring. When these vessels hook up to pair trawl they are deadly efficient on an enormous scale. Imagine the effect of two 150’ vessels a quarter mile apart towing, with 2,500 horsepower, one side of a small mesh net with a mouth between 200 to 300 feet across and towing at five knots. Almost everything in the net’s path is taken. This fishing activity is permitted within 3 miles of the coastline directly eliminating the forage necessary for many other commercial and recreational fisheries such as striped bass and bluefish.

And it is not only the size of the midwater pair trawl operation but the fishing pattern of the fleet that causes the most severe damage. Herring mostly school up on relatively small and discrete fishing grounds and this, of course, attracts other fish, birds and mammals. The midwater vessels concentrate here (same as the tuna and groundfish boats) and repeatedly, 24/7, crisscross these grounds with their huge nets. Research has shown that schools of herring disturbed by fishing gear quickly regain their school structure (even after large reductions in the available biomass are made) making them especially vulnerable to repeated tows. The result is that within a matter of days, an area can go from being healthy and alive, to being dry as a bone.

Even if the herring did not possess this characteristic (of re-schooling), the midwater vessels have forward looking sonars which allows efficient and cost effective tracking and catching of relatively small assemblages until an area is nearly devoid of forage. This efficiency is incompatible with rebuilding objectives for numerous Northeast species of much greater recreational and commercial value then .06 cents per pound herring.

Purse seine gear could never be this efficient hence the decades of compatibility of tuna harpoon and rod and reel boats with the traditional herring fishery. Seiners are fully capable of fishing alongside other fisheries without causing issues. The localized herring resource depletion caused by the midwater boats, on the other hand, is having terrible impacts on every other fishery trying to share these limited fishing grounds. Currently NMFS and state herring biologists deny that localized resource abundance is a concern with herring. Apparently, they must believe that there is an inexhaustible supply of herring waiting to fill the voids created by intensive fishing by efficient midwater vessels.

This efficiency of midwater trawling has now effectively killed the traditional early June and July bluefin tuna harpoon season in the Gulf of Maine. Between 1995 and 2001 the rod and reel catch in the Gulf of Maine also declined dramatically from 190 to 66 mt while the overall catch shifting to other areas with available forage increased from 531 mt to 929 mt in 2001.

A statistically significant negative relationship (see Figure 1) has been demonstrated between increased herring midwater catches and declining rod and reel catches. Each year since has been worse than the year before. Every year the tuna leave earlier, along with the whales and other fish that rely on herring. The last two years have been worse than any on record. This summer has been the worst by far, with less than 20 fish caught in the Gulf of Maine all summer. The storied Maine harpoon fleet, which never stopped fishing until October every year, has not fished since early August. The whale watch and charter boat fleets haven’t fared any better. Nor have recreational fishermen. Everyone is suffering.

Overfishing in Gulf of Maine

The current herring plan manages the fishery with area “soft” quotas (i.e. no provision to pay back for overages) and for the Gulf of Maine the quota has been set at 60,000 mt. But recognized herring scientists Dr. Vaughn Anthony and Dr. Andy Rosenberg (both former NMFS scientists) have stated publicly that 60,000 mt is too high for the inshore resource. The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee has formally advised in 2003 that “the current concentration of harvest in the inshore Gulf of Maine is of concern and may be excessive.”

If the 60,000 mt annual quota is “of concern” and “may be excessive” what damage to the discrete inshore spawning component was done by newly revised (and dramatically higher) reported catches from this resource of 83,303, 95,485, 88,069, 75,533 respectively for the years 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1999. These catches made just prior to implementation of the plan amount to 102,390 mt above the level of catch deemed risky for the inshore component by highly qualified scientists.

NMFS has been made aware of the views of many herring purse seine, tuna fishermen, groundfish fishermen and whale watch naturalists that the Jeffrey’s Ledge spawning stock has already been wiped out by the midwater trawl fleet similar to the “Trinity Ledge” (formerly the closest spawning/fishing grounds to Yarmouth, N.S.) stock collapse in Canadian waters. It is not a new phenomenon for near-shore sub-stocks to be damaged while offshore resources remain underutilized.

Midwater Bycatch Problems

Commercial fishermen in New England have always known that the name “midwater gear” was a fallacy-that any trawl gear can be made to fish the bottom if the Captain is competent. In a move generating controversy with groundfish fishermen, the New England Council in 1999 gave the midwater vessels a blanket exemption from restrictions on access to groundfish spawning and other closed areas. The premise was that the midwater gear was defined as a gear “incapable” of interacting with bottom dwelling groundfish.

In August of 2004 this myth was shattered when massive amounts of haddock bycatch were discovered by Maine Marine Patrol and NMFS enforcement aboard several midwater trawl vessels landing in Maine and Gloucester. The vessels had been fishing on Cultivator Shoals on Georges Bank and returned with up to 4.5% of their catch of juvenile haddock between 4 and 14 inches small. One vessel had 32,000 lbs. of baby haddock before the agents stopped counting. In Herring Amendment 1, they make clear that these boats are fully capable of fishing on bottom.

The damage being done to the groundfish stocks for which hundreds of families have suffered to rebuild, will never recover when these boats are given a free pass to fish anywhere they want. While countless 30-40 foot groundfish draggers are banned from closed areas like Jeffrey’s Ledge, these 150’ pair trawlers to the same areas, with bigger nets, smaller mesh, at a higher speed, all year round. These boats have made a mockery of the whole rebuilding plan for species like cod and other highly regulated species.

In 1997 the State of Maine observed 54 midwater trawl tows and documented 9 giant bluefin tuna bycatch. The fleet executes thousands of tows each year on 1,060 fishing trips (2001) so one can only imagine the horrendous total wasted bycatch of giant tunas. In 2004 a midwater vessel was caught attempting to smuggle two giant bluefins for sale. In 2003 Maine Marine Patrol questioned some of the midwater boats when 11 dead whales washed ashore, some with wounds that appeared to be not naturally inflicted.

This record of bycatch alone would ordinarily shut down any fleet in any region and on any coast, under the stringent Magnuson Act mandates to eliminate bycatch. But this midwater trawl fleet appears to be “Teflon coated.” The states of Maine and Massachusetts support for the midwater fleet is impenetrable thus far and this, in turn, dominates the New England Council’s perspective on midwater trawl issues

Herring as Forage Considerations

Recent research has identified that herring is important forage for: 8 major groundfish species including cod, pollock and haddock; monkfish and spiny dogfish (dogfish alone eating in excess of 67,660 mt per year); 6 major pelagic species including bluefin tuna, swordfish, bluefish and striped bass; 9 species of sharks including blue sharks; short and long finned squids; 7 varieties of marine mammals including humpback whales, harbor porpoises, pilot whales and more. In other words, herring is crucial forage for just about every species of recreational and commercial importance in New England. The most recent dogfish assessment (42nd SAW) adds urgency to the forage issue, as an official doubling in dogfish biomass has occurred, and the herring these excess dogfish eat is not accounted for in the management models.

In 1994 the National Academy of Sciences criticized the international stock assessment for bluefin tuna for not taking into account availability of forage as a factor given the known fact that tuna migration patterns are heavily linked to forage levels. It is not surprising that bluefin in the west the last few years have preferred Canadian and North Carolina fishing grounds over New England’s given the availability of copious quantities of herring and menhaden respectively available in those regions. Canada has banned the use of midwater trawl gear for almost 30 years now.

The Sustainable Fisheries Act has mandated rapid rebuilding of all U.S. fisheries and in New England this is weighty task given the plight of the prior 25 years. No one knows what the forage requirements and other impacts will be of an ecosystem with much larger populations of groundfish, dogfish, bluefin tuna, sharks and more. The increasing population of dogfish for example, has recreational and commercial fishermen alike screaming over the serious negative impacts on fisheries for striped bass, bluefish and bluefin tuna.

We do know the obvious though, that with increasing predators, there will be dramatically higher need for herring to sustain these increasing and rebuilt populations. Charter boat captains and commercial cod fishermen are already complaining about skinny codfish with empty stomachs in the Gulf of Maine.

Given the evidence of grave risk to the herring stock in the Gulf of Maine, the damage being done to other fisheries by herring midwater trawl gear, the bycatch problem and the need for forage for increasing populations of fish, the current herring management policies, to be polite, are grossly inadequate. Allowing continued unfettered midwater trawl access to coastal and offshore groundfish protected areas is not simply unwise and unjustified, it is inequitable to thousands of recreational and commercial fishermen who have sacrificed to conserve these fish.

A group in New England, the Coalition for the Atlantic Herring Fishery’s Orderly, Informed and Responsible Long Term Development (aka CHOIR) has been working since 2002 to make sure that the herring fishery isn’t given free reign to destroy the Gulf of Maine and the livelihoods of those who work on it. In 2005, CHOIR, along with thousands from the general public, wrote in showing support for a Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only “Buffer Zone” in Area 1A, which is the inshore area in the Gulf of Maine. This Buffer Zone would allow for more traditional- and sustainable- methods, such as fixed gear and purse seining to fish in the inshore while pushing the big trawlers offshore.

The support shown for this Buffer Zone was overwhelming. Thousands had spoken, and luckily, the New England Fishery Management Council was listening: at its January 31-Februray 2nd meetings in Portland Maine, the Council voted 13-2 to pass the Buffer Zone, along with a couple other actions such as a limited access program, in what would be known as Amendment 1 to the Herring FMP.

While many had assumed the battle was over, it was really only beginning. Despite the public mandate to set up this Buffer Zone, the powerful midwater trawl lobby has worked hard to undercut the public’s and NE Council’s wishes and to stop the Buffer Zone from being passed into law. They have been putting a lot of pressure on both NMFS and certain members of Congress to stifle the momentum and allow for these big trawlers to continue causing great damage.

The Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only Buffer Zone is what many believe to be the last chance for the Gulf of Maine and it’s many fisheries and industries. The tuna and whales continue to leave earlier every year; the groundfish will never have a chance to rebuild, as the boats catch the forage the stocks are relying on to rebuild, as well as causing great harm by towing in closed areas; the recreational fisheries have been damaged greatly by the lack of food for key species like bluefish and striped bass. So many things rely on herring and the Buffer Zone would be the first key step in protecting this valuable resource.

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