The Bycatch That Gives You a Haddock

Federal government begins pilot program to use cameras on herring trawlers, while New England states move to loosen rules on haddock

By NICOLE St. CLAIR KNOBLOCH/ecoRI News contributor

Haddock is the largest component of bycatch by midwater trawling vessels, according to the NEFMC.

Haddock is the largest component of bycatch by midwater trawling vessels, according to the NEFMC.

Starting in October, the federal government began a pilot project to test electronic monitoring on midwater herring trawlers fishing in “groundfish closed” areas off the coast of New England, two of which are in the rich spawning grounds on the continental shelf known as Georges Bank. The yearlong project will help regulators decide whether cameras can replace people as observers to regulate herring trawlers’ catch of haddock.

But before the study is finished, the New England Fishery Management Council will be working to loosen the rules on how much haddock herring trawlers can catch.

Since 2011, government observers have been required on any trips trawlers make to those areas, as part of a program to limit incidental catch, often called “bycatch,” of untargeted fish species. In the case of herring fishing, the biggest bycatch concern on Georges Bank has been haddock, a species on the rebound after the groundfish collapses of the mid-1990s.

But the monitoring program has been expensive. A recent amendment to all Northeast fisheries plans required the industry to assist in funding its overseers, increasing pressure to bring down costs.

Federal regulators believe electronic monitoring could be the answer.

“This year we’ll get really good (human) observer coverage — 440 sea days — so we’re going to compare what the observer sees and what the camera sees,” said Daniel Luers, a monitoring expert at the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries office of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The contractors will watch all the videos, and then NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) will watch to confirm that what the contractors have seen correlates with the observers.”

What they’re looking for are “discard” events, where fishermen dump unwanted fish back into the sea — rather than reporting the bycatch and facing fishing closures.

“The biggest question out there is about bycatch,” said Deirdre Boelke, a fishery analyst at the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), which sets rules for New England fisheries. “Stakeholders are very concerned about the level of bycatch in this fishery because it’s high volume. Even a handful of (incidentally caught) fish, when you multiply that by all the pounds that are coming up in these trips, it can be a big deal. Haddock is a big deal.”

According to an Oct. 12 memo to the NEFMC from its plan development task force, haddock is “the largest component of bycatch by midwater trawl vessels.”

Yet even as the government focuses on how to better measure bycatch and discard incidents, the NEFMC is considering options to loosen the catch rules to allow herring ships to achieve “optimum yield” each fishing year.

Until now, the herring fishery has been limited to catching 1 percent of haddock’s acceptable biological catch (ABC) limit — the volume of fish that regulators say can be caught without jeopardizing population sizes. Once the 1 percent limit has been reached,   a haddock-dense area is closed to herring fishing for the rest of the fishing year.

In 2014 and 2015, herring trawlers slightly exceeded the limit, triggering a closure of most of Georges Bank to herring fishing from October to April, the start of the next fishing year.

But rather than being regarded as a haddock-protection success, the closures triggered a reaction within the NEFMC to lift the cap on haddock to 1.5 percent or 2 percent of the haddock ABC or expand the areas where herring trawlers can fish, or both.

The protection of the herring fishery’s yields is at the center of the often-conflicted social, economic and ecological goals of managing fishing in New England. Though a high-volume, low-value fishery, the use of herring as low-cost bait for lobster gives it special status in the region.

This status originally led to the trawlers being allowed into groundfish-closed areas on the assumption that the midwater gear wouldn’t catch groundfish. But haddock do swim in the mid-water column and often mix with herring. The 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Act mandated bycatch caps and standardized the vessels’ reporting of bycatch.

Federal scientists say haddock populations have rebounded and aren’t being overfished. But checking for bycatch on a midwater trawler is complicated. Millions of pounds of fish are caught in nets and poured through a chute into cool-water holding pens. On-board observers do hold buckets under the flow of fish to take samples for bycatch, a role that would be lost with electronic monitoring only.

“The electronic monitoring options would likely be paired with port-side monitoring to assess incidental catch of particular species,” Jason Didden, fishery management specialist for the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, wrote in an e-mail. “The EM (electronic monitoring) would primarily be used to discourage/track at-sea discarding (which, if substantial, could invalidate port-side sampling results).”

Measuring bycatch at the dock also is complicated.

“Logistically, at the ports, there is no good way to measure it,” NOAA fishery research biologist Jon Deroba said. “You can see how full the ship is, and how much water is mixed in, how many mackerel, cod, haddock, etc. But there are a million and a half to two million pounds of herring so it gets difficult.”

He said herring dealers are another check in the system.

“The herring industry will tell you that when they come to a dealer, the dealer doesn’t want to get ripped off. So it’s somewhat self-checking,” Deroba said.

Regulators rely in part on self-reported catch incidents from the ships. Herring operators insist theirs is a clean fishery — meaning no unreported bycatch — and the 12 boats have cooperated with the government on installing the cameras and sensors.

Sara Weeks, biologist at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, said the industry is invested in the monitoring, because it wants to preserve the ability to fish Georges Bank, a trip that, 16 hours away, is a “major undertaking.”

Luers thought the reaction was more mixed, but would ultimately be embraced by the industry, not least because electronic monitoring would be one-third to half the cost of human observers.

“I don’t get the impression that captains are overly thrilled,” Luers said. “But the owners are interested and they think it’s a good thing. They know this is coming down the line, (and) if we don’t want observers on every boat that goes out, this is something we ought to look at.”

Weeks sought to dispel rumors from other fisheries that midwater trawls were being given a pass on bycatch.

“Everybody’s paying attention to midwater trawling these days,” she said. “We’re certainly covering the fleet.”