Big changes could be coming to New England herring fishery

Published on
September 26, 2018

The New England Fisheries Management Council voted on 25 September to make two changes to the management of the herring fishery that, if eventually implemented, would cause large changes to it and other fisheries in the region. 

The change, known as Amendment 8, has been in the works by the NEFMC for several years, and creates a long-term biological catch control rule for Atlantic herring fishery that accounts for the fish’s role in the wider ecosystem, as well as addressing the potential localized depletion of Atlantic herring to minimize impacts on other user groups. Primarily used as bait for the lobster and tuna fisheries, the fishery has an average annual value of USD 20 million (EUR 17 million) and a typical catch of 90,000 MT, with a low of 65,000 MT in 2016.

The decisions on the herring fishery were tempered by the most recent assessment of the biomass and recruitment, which even at their most optimistic, offered a bleak outlook for the future of Atlantic herring. 

“I look at the recruitment pattern right now, and it looks like we’re on the verge of collapsing the stock,” said David Pierce, a council member and director for marine fisheries for the state of Massachusetts. “It’s a very alarming downward trend, certainly the lowest values for the recruitment.”

The recruitment numbers, in the latest assessment, were lower than the previous low point in the 1970s, when record-setting catches virtually wiped out the fishery for a period. Since 2013, recruitment numbers have been well below average for the species. 

That’s part of why the NEFMC went with an allowable biological catch (ABC) control rule for the next three years that’s more restrictive than those in the past. After the years of work, the herring committee created nine alternatives for the management plan, ranging from taking no action on the previous management plan to a 50-nautical-mile prohibition on all mid-water trawling gear. 

The ABC control rule the council eventually decided on in a unanimous vote was “4B revised,” which was a slight revision on alternative 4B. That will drop the total allowable catch of herring from 49,900 tons down to 21,266 tons in 2019. The revised version of 4B allows for a smaller portion to be set aside for forage, increasing the allowable catch from 18,980 tons.

In addition to the control rule, the council also approved having the new control they set be used for the ABC every three years. Each year, the ABC could be different, and would be set based on the most recent herring assessment and short-term projections of the stock. The goal was to have similar performance to an annual assessment process, but with less strain on resources as assessing the fishery every year is cost-prohibitive. 

The issue drew intense public comment on both sides, with midwater trawlers in the herring industry and lobster fishermen coming out against the drastic cut in allowable catch the council’s decision represents. 

“There’s no one that has more at stake,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobster Association. The lobster industry has already been dealing with issues related to bait, and the latest decision by the council will likely cause those problems to be even worse."

She added that the decrease may be prohibitive for the industry. “We’re not going to be here to see the long-term impacts of this control rule," she said.

“We lose that bait, it’s fresh herring, that’s landed locally, during peak lobster landings,” McCarron said. "The industry uses millions of pounds more than the new current allowable catch will provide.We manage to cut half of our use, we’re still 40 million pounds of bait short. If you do get bait, you’re going to be on rations, and the price is going to skyrocket.”

Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Beth Casoni had similar sentiments. 

“The lobster industry will bear the brunt of all the decisions that are made here,” she said. 

Other fishermen and environmental advocates, in contrast, wished the council had gone even further to restrict the herring fishery.

Erica Fuller, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the new control rule will buffer the herring fishery from the ongoing changes happening in the Gulf of Maine. 

“We need to start building resiliency, rather than make short-term decisions,” she said. “A control rule that recognizes herring’s role in the ecosystem will make a lasting impact.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts argued for even more conservative action on the herring fishery, but applauded the council's approval of the revised 4B proposal.

“Pew estimates that this action will keep an additional 31 million pounds of herring in the water over next three years, which will help the declining population rebuild and provide more essential forage for predators,” the organization said in a release. 

The second action taken by the council established a 12-nautical-mile buffer zone, starting at Montauk Lighthouse in New York and running to the eastern border of Maine, that would prohibit all mid-water trawling for herring. An additional amendment added prohibitions in two areas, 113 and 99, in Herring Management Areas 1B and 3. Those prohibitions will be year-round if approved. 

The move was to address localized depletion of herring, to recognize the small fish’s role as forage for larger predator species. 

For those in the midwater trawl industry, the ban represents a bleak outlook on their future.

“This will kill us. We won’t survive this,” said one fishermen. “Any one of these buffers that you guys are proposing are going to put us out of business, I’ve no doubt in my mind.”

Casoni said the move presents a precedent, pitting user groups against user groups and crippling the midwater trawl industry. Surveys done by the NEFMC indicated that 75 percent of the midwater trawl fishery was coming from within the 12-nautical-mile zone that would be prohibited.

“I don’t know anybody in this room that could survive a 75 percent pay cut," Casoni said.

Those in favor of a buffer felt that 12 nautical miles didn’t go far enough. Pete Kaiser, representing fishermen from Nantucket, said he’s been fishing in the area for 42 years and has seen the impact of the midwater trawl herring fishery on the oceans. 

“I’ll tell you, looking back to around 2003, when midwater boats started fishing on the back of the cape, fishermen witnessed the destruction and the end of herring,” he said. “At this point in time, that historical migration no longer takes place.”

Bill McGuire, from Rhode Island, said the fishery has also been destroying the river herring populations. He helped lift 74,000 river herring over dams in the state, only to have less than 1,000 come back. 

“I’m sick and tired of cleaning up the environment and building fish ladders and facilities, and not getting any return on investment, because you guys are allowing these paired trawlers come in here and take everything,” he said. “You ought to stop wasting my money, and everybody else’s tax money, and let these guys rape the ocean for what are they getting, a dollar a pound?”

Chris Weiner, a tuna fishermen, said the restrictions wouldn’t have needed to happen if the council had taken action earlier. 

“Do you remember how this gear was sold, an offshore fishery?” he said. “Now we’re being told if you push us off 12 miles, we’re not going to survive.”

In the end, the council sided on restricting midwater trawling in the zone. 

“I thought I remembered they have the opportunity to switch gears,” said John Pappalardo, an at-large member from the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. 

Pappalardo said the justification for the ban is to protect the egg mats that herring lay, and to try and re-establish the life cycle in the region the he said he’s personally witness be disrupted by the midwater trawls. He also justified the council’s move within the national guidelines by pointing out it represents a safety issue, with some fishermen in smaller boats being forced to travel far afield now that the herring fishery has been depleted near them. 

“You heard several people testify, in order to pursue the fisheries they’re licensed to pursue, it’s forced them to travel farther and farther, and I think the council has legs to stand on,” he said. 

For conservation organizations like Pew, the decision by the council represents a step in the right direction for considering forage fish as a part of the large ecosystem. 

“New England managers deserve credit for being among the first to follow a public, science-based process with concrete actions to conserve forage fish,” said Peter Baker, director of U.S. Ocean Conservation-Northeast for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Protecting these sensitive areas from intensive fishing and rebuilding the herring population will directly benefit marine wildlife and the coastal businesses that depend on them.”

The decisions by the council aren’t final, and will still need to head before the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. 

“The timeline that we’ve been working under with a normal review, it would not be before mid-2019,” said Deirdre Boelke, a member of NEFMC staff.  

Photo courtesy of NEFMC

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