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Herring Turf War?

April 01, 2005

Fishermen’s Voice
Jeff Della Penna
Found at: Fishermen’s Voice

It never ceases to amaze most of us how the tiny herring, at the bottom of the food chain, can have such an important effect on just about every other fish population, all the way up the chain to the biggest sea creature, the whale, and the fastest, the North Atlantic bluefin tuna. But, it’s the herrings position as the blue-plate special menu item on just about every fish’s diet that makes this little critter so important.

In the distant past, with the herring so abundant, the idea of fighting over them seemed downright ridiculous. But, about the time that the weir fishermen saw the purse seiners hauling off what the weir boys considered to be “their herring,” the idea of ownership was suddenly introduced.

The squabble over herring turned into a barroom brawl when the purse seiners, on their way out to the herring grounds for a night of fishing, saw the new guys on the block, the pair trawlers, making for port, loaded to the gills with herring. Now the herring wars have escalated to a new level. The Gulf of Maine bluefin tuna fishery is worried that a decrease in the herring population is directly behind the recent decrease in bluefin tuna in this area.

It’s not often that one fishery calls out another. Most turf wars within the fishery are kept behind closed doors, or restricted to private heads-up style discreet conversations with fishery administrators. But, in an effort to protect their interests, bluefin tuna fishermen are openly calling a spade a spade when it comes to herring pair trawlers. At the recent Maine Fishermen’s Forum, Richard Ruais, of East Coast Tuna Association, was a panelist for a discussion on the variation in the distribution of bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine. Ruais took the opportunity to look the pair-trawler industry right in the eye and hold them specifically responsible for the decline in herring populations in the Gulf, and, by default, for decreased numbers of giant tunas in this region.

The transition of the herring fishery from traditional purse-seine gear to mid-water and pair mid-water trawling in the mid 1990’s has had, we think, a profound negative impact on giant tuna fishing in New England,” Ruais said. “The transition took place between 1994 and 1997, when the gear replaced purse-seiners as the primary gear for catching herring in New England. By 1997, about 50 percent of the herring catch was being done by mid-water trawler gear. By 2003, mid-water trawling now accounted for 70 percent of the herring catch in Area 1A, and 81 percent of the total northeast catch.”

Ruais claims that the impact of pair trawlers has greatly affected the tuna fishery. “By 2003, the northeast bluefin fishery had declined to about 530 metric tons from a total of 960 metric tons, in 2001,” Ruais said. “The 2004 season saw the worst production since the 1970’s. What we think is happening is that the mid-water gear is simply too efficient for competing coastal fisheries that require high concentrations of herrings as forage fish to attract and hold tuna, whales and to feed recovering groundfish stocks.”

Molly Lutcavage got her Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography at the University of Miami, in 1987. An expert on tuna, she did research on physiology and conservation of large pelagic vertebrates for the New England Aquarium in 1994, and recently moved to the position of Associate Research Professor of Zoology, at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. She was also part of the panel discussion at the Fishermen’s Forum.

Lutcavage will be the first to tell you that there are many within herring fishery management who believe that there is an abundant herring population swimming around the Gulf of Maine. But, in talking with her, you quickly get the feeling that she doubts the validity of that assumption.

“We don’t know why there’s less giant tuna,” Lutcavage said. “It could be a combination of over-fishing or environmental issues. Or, it could be changes in the prey base, the herring. One could surmise that if the herring aren’t here, or aren’t in the areas where the tuna need to find them, then the tuna won’t stay.”

According to Lutcavage, the science on bluefin tuna is just coming up to speed. “Distribution is changing,” Lutcavage said. “Patterns are changing. We don’t know why. All we know is that it’s happening. We can’t predict where these changes will take us.”

Lutcavage is quick to point out that, “A lot has changed since the study was done.” Lutcavage has two grad students currently working on studies that will show that herring now play a major role in the diet of bluefins as they come into the Gulf. And, as she has said numerous times, if the food isn’t here, the tuna won’t stay. Look for those two studies to be released later in the year.

“Some would argue that some sort of precautionary stance should be taken immediately, at least until the science can catch-up,” Lutcavage said. But it could be years before the science catches up. Can we afford to take a chance in the meantime” To say that a decrease in herring won’t have a direct effect on bluefin, I think, would be ignoring a very important relationship.”

Lutcavage said that she felt that the Fishermen’s Forum discussion was important because it was an event that certainly raised awareness of the issue. “It really got everybody’s attention, and if people weren’t paying attention before, they certainly are paying attention now.”

As for the stand-off between the tuna fishery and the pair-trawl industry, we can expect that conflict to only escalate. Many of the opinions that Ruais holds are gathering momentum within the other New England fisheries. It might take a whale of a public relations effort on the part of the pair-trawler industry to swing the tide.

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