By NICOLE St. CLAIR KNOBLOCH/ecoRI News contributor
CHATHAM, Mass. — Cape Cod fishermen may be on their way to some relief from sharing inshore fishing grounds with mid-water herring trawling, a practice they say is threatening their livelihoods. But a persistent lack of data on the impact of the trawls may hamper efforts to regulate them.
On Aug. 17, the Herring Oversight Committee of the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to send the council two options for establishing a buffer zone prohibiting mid-water trawling off Cape Cod. The zone would extend either 12 miles or 35 miles from shore — significantly farther than the 6-mile zone proposed by the herring industry and closer than the 50-mile mark sought by environmental groups. The council will consider the options when it meets in September.
Fishermen have been complaining for years about the industrial-sized ships landing on the back side of Cape Cod, scooping up millions of pounds of herring and leaving, they say, a temporary ocean “bio-desert” in their wake.
In 2015, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance collected hundreds of comments and individual letters from fisherman about the phenomenon called “localized depletion” — defined as “when harvesting takes more fish than can be replaced locally or through fish migrating into the catch area within a given time period.”
For those who fish bluefin tuna, striped bass, dogfish, and are still recovering from drastic cuts to allowable catches of groundfish such as cod, competing with the large ships doesn’t feel like a fair fight.
“We have a problem on the back side of the Cape,” said striped bass fisherman Patrick Paquette at the recent committee hearing. “We have big industrial boats fishing in shallow water.”
The comments were part of a new look at how herring fishing should be managed. The New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) was tasked in 2007 with establishing a control rule for herring stocks. But in 2014, a lawsuit from environmental groups prompted an examination of the biological and ecological role of herring in the western Atlantic Ocean ecosystem, with the aim of establishing a stronger control rule reflecting the herring’s status as a forage species.
Even if the NEFMC is able to determine that role, and assign a new acceptable biological catch limit for herring, its science committee asserts that stronger stock-wide limits wouldn’t necessarily avoid local effects on the food web when trawlers come through.
A local dogfish fisherman, who didn’t want to use his name for fear of “retribution” from the herring companies, described the experience of encountering a mid-water trawler inshore.
“We go out and they’re out there with their lights off, inside of three miles (from shore),” he said at the Chatham dock two days before the Aug. 17 meeting. “They see us and turn their lights on, and plow right through our lines, leaving no groundfish. We might as well just go home and call it a season.”
The herring industry disputes such claims, as proving them has been problematic. At the August meeting, the task force charged with analyzing the impacts of midwater trawling on other species presented few results. Though it confirmed significant numbers of trawler landings in Area 114, a section of ocean on the “back” of Cape Cod, it didn’t show the effect of that activity on other species. NEFMC staff cited lack of reported data and noted the lack of an adequate computer model and the time to develop one.
The staff did find that both large and small schools of tuna, which prey on herring, are lower in New England now than in the 1980s, but suggested lack of prey as only one of several possible explanations for the decline.
“Year after year, we have no scientific basis for taking any action on herring. We have no evidence localized depletion exists,” said Herring Oversight Committee member Mary Beth Tooley, who is on the board of O’Hara Industries, a herring company operating two mid-water trawlers out of Rockport, Maine.
Herring fisherman Gerry O’Neill got up from the audience to agree with Tooley.
“I feel this whole thing is going forward based on perception, not based on facts,” he said. “The research — there are ways to do it. We’d like to see it done. If we are going to lose access to fish we would like some biological, scientific basis for it.”
Getting that level of proof in New England is difficult, according to John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
“We don’t have synced or simple data collection systems on each fishery,” he said. He pointed to Alaska, where herring fishing is intensely monitored and pair trawling is limited to a few areas. There, he said, “Industry is more involved in the collection of that data. It’s partly the (New England) culture, which is a resistance to being observed or monitored.”
Making that happen here, Pappalardo said, is up to Congress and the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Where is the political will?” he asked.
He expressed exasperation with the idea that a connection between herring trawls and other species had to be proved absolutely.
“These people will not draw a correlation,” he said. “(For them) there is always something else to eat in the ocean.”
Even without more data, NEFMC’s Atlantic herring management plan was amended in 2006 to ban midwater trawling in the summer in the inshore area for the entire Gulf of Maine. The ban ends just above the fishing area of Cape Cod. It came after thousands of comments from Gulf of Maine fishermen with similar complaints as their Cape Cod counterparts.
At the September meeting, the council is expected to hear the science committee’s findings on how much herring is needed to support the area’s ecosystem.
To some, herring’s role is obvious, even if acceptable catch levels are not.
“The ecosystem starts with herring,” said the Chatham dogfish fisherman. “Am I the only one that remembers that part in elementary school? When they drew a circle around a herring and said the food chain starts here.”