By Aubrey Ellertson Church
At the end of June, traveling up to Freeport, Maine for the most recent New England Fishery Management Council meeting, I found myself thinking back to 2011.
I was a bright-eyed, naive, 20-year-old who had decided after college to become an at-sea monitor and fisheries observer. I headed out of Gloucester on my first multi-day trip on the F/V Lady Jane with Russell Sherman.
Russell ran a 72-foot trawler, and targeted haddock, flounder, redfish and Atlantic cod. During the trip, He explained he graduated from Harvard University, took a job on a fishing boat and never looked back. I could tell how educated and outspoken Russell was, and how significant this trip would be to my career.
Russell was a huge advocate for the fishing community, and believed there was a way to reach a fair and equitable solution for both the fishing industry and the marine environment. Fishing since the late 1980s, he served on advisory panels for the New England council, and helped co-found the nonprofit Northeast Seafood Coalition.
Russell told me that if I really wanted to pursue a career in fisheries, I needed to show up at Council meetings. One of eight regional councils in the nation, the New England Council manages our region’s marine resources, develops management plans and sets annual catch advice based on best available science.
Councils also develop research priorities with stakeholders and scientists, aim to prevent overfishing, and balance resource conservation. The goal is to create policies that provide the greatest overall benefit to the nation — food production, recreational opportunities and the protection of marine ecosystems.
I took Russell’s advice, for the first of many Council meetings to come. In those days the room was packed with commercial fishermen. You could feel real tension, and I was in awe at how outspoken many fishermen were about the issues that impacted their livelihoods.
I remember David Goethel, F/V Ellen Diane, during a public comment period in 2012, describing the “immense amount of frustration out there in the fishing community … We are simply not being listened to by fisheries management.”
As a young scientist, how could that not tug at your heart strings?
My time as a fisheries observer allowed me to travel throughout New England to different fishing ports, experiencing a range of fisheries. I gained an appreciation for the unique challenges commercial fishermen face; changing regulations, unpredictable market, and the environment.
I recall Frank Mirarchi out of Scituate defining small fishing ports with small boats that have “limited range and limited capacity. We wait for fish to come to us, we don’t go to the fish.” That made a lot of sense to me, and I wanted to make sure I spent the remainder of my observing career learning from small independent fishermen regarding their fishery, the gear they use and the challenges they face with management.
Fast forward to today, there were a variety of topics slated on the June Council agenda. Of specific interest to me were reports on recent survey activities, reports from the Skate, Scallop, Groundfish and Atlantic herring committee, three National Standard Guidelines, and a Monkfish Research Set-Aside Working Group.
We received an update from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center regarding the status of NOAA’s scientific surveys, specifically the R/V Henry B Bigelow and R/V Hugh R. Sharp. The news wasn’t good.
The 2023 sea scallop survey was cancelled due to mechanical difficulties with the Sharp. Surveys were scheduled for May 13 to June 13, but was rescheduled for eight days (June 14 through 21). The ship encountered further mechanical failures and returned to port on June 16.
Data collected on sea scallop surveys are crucial to understanding the locations and abundance of this species to develop quota and area openings for the coming year. NOAA contacted other groups who survey in the region through the Atlantic Sea Scallop Research Set Aside program, hoping they could expand their surveys and provide more data for Georges Bank and in the Mid-Atlantic area.
The Henry B Bigelow is designed to monitor trends in abundance, distribution, and life history, inform stock assessments, and monitor ecosystem changes. This spring, the Bigelow lost 43 of its planned 60 sea days, and was not fully staffed, resulting in only 12-hour operations per day compared to 24. Survey tows were conducted during daylight hours only. Of the 377 planned stations, only 70 were completed.
Dr. Jon Hare, director of the NOAA Science Center, told the Council, “I recognize that with the bottom trawl survey and the scallop survey we did not meet expectations, and I want you all to know that we understand that … We are going to learn from this year, and hopefully make some improvements and contingencies going forward.”
Hare said at the next meeting in September he will give a presentation on these ongoing issues. He explained that the Bigelow is going through a refit in 2027 and will be unavailable for 12 to 18 months.
Alan Tracy, a Council member from Maine, highlighted the importance of industry involvement.
“This seems like a great opportunity to involve industry in new and innovative ways,” he said. “There is nothing I hear more as a council member from industry than their frustration with groundfish, frustration with the scientific process and confusion about how things work … There is a feeling among industry of a real crisis about stock assessments and science and how that compares to what is being seen on the water.”
Concerns regarding the NOAA Bigelow survey are not new. In 2012, Ron Smolowitz, of Coonamessett Farm Foundation in Falmouth, pushed the Council to engage a couple of commercial fishing vessels and rig them the same as the Bigelow to triple the number of survey stations to improve accuracy and precision. That didn’t happen and today the sentiment echoes once again.
After the June Council meeting, the Northeast Trawl Advisory Panel met to discuss the Bigelow contingency plan. Similar sentiments were shared during that meeting as was expressed at the council meeting. Eric Reid, Chair of the New England Council, said, “The industry is suffering greatly … No data from the Bigelow is no longer acceptable. Let’s move this forward, and get it done.”
Past Council Member Terry Alexander, who now serves on the advisory panel, agreed and added, “I don’t see how we can go any other way without using industry boats. We can’t rely on scientific NOAA vessels being staffed and ready to go.”
Drew Minkiewicz, representing the Fisheries Survival Fund, pointed out two themes: “First, fundamental distrust/lack of belief in the data that are coming out of the success of federal surveys. And two, frustration for survey inability to be completed year after year. Industry surveys are the answer to both of those issues.”
At every Council meeting, there is opportunity to provide public comment. Andrea Tomlinson of the New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance spoke about how the “worldwide phenomenon known as ‘the graying of the fleet’ was greatly affecting the productiveness and participation level in our local fishing industry.”
Tomlinson has worked to encourage young fishermen and women to become more engaged in the regulatory process. She shared a consensus that the New England fishing community does not feel heard or understood. Her hope (like mine) is to change that by building a bridge between the next generation of young fishermen and scientists and regulators.
Jerry Leeman, New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association, echoed concerns with the Bigelow survey, as well as the importance of bridging any gaps between the Council and actual working knowledge passed down by those who have spent “220 to 240 days a year at sea.”
Another big topic was whether the Council would approve a problem statement to guide work to revisit an Inshore Midwater Trawl Restricted Area that was developed under Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. The restricted area was implemented by NOAA Fisheries on February 10, 2021 but overturned and vacated by a federal court on March 29, 2022.
Amendment 8 created a 12-mile buffer zone from Rhode Island to US/Canada border and 20-mile buffer east of Cape Cod, prohibiting “using, deploying, or fishing with midwater trawl gear” within the restricted areas. The goal was to account for the role of Atlantic herring within the ecosystem, stabilize the fishery, and address localized depletion in inshore waters.
After the court vacated the buffer zone, the Council decided to make it a 2023 work priority, so they could address issues raised by the court and return with a new amendment that would survive legal challenge.
John Pappalardo, council member and CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, shared his perspective. Currently the status of the Atlantic herring resource is “overfished” — successive stock assessments have the herring resource going down, down, and down. Pappalardo recalled sitting at the council table for years, remembering many discussions about gear conflicts and user conflicts:
As Pappalardo described the early 2000s, “we dislocated and relocated the pair trawl industry off the Cape and Islands, and actually right on top of the overlapping part of the known Georges Bank/Nantucket Shoals spawning area.” Now, as Pappalardo put it, “the resource is in the toilet.”
“We have a stock, a resource that we are trying to rebuild. God, I hope we can, but if we do, and we don’t have protections in place … these conflicts are going to erupt again. We have an opportunity right now with that information to put in place some management measures.”
The Council approved the problem statement for this action, 13 to 4. The Council will now explore options to “minimize user conflicts, including spatially and temporally explicit gear restrictions, area closures, and possession limits … (and) consider, but not be limited to, the spatial extent of the Midwater Trawl Restricted Area approved by the Council in Amendment 8, with a particular focus on areas not already subject to seasonal closures to midwater trawling.”
The Herring Plan Development Team (PDT) and Advisory Panel will work on a new herring action over the summer. The council will receive an update during the next meeting in September.
As I reflect on the June council meeting, I must thank Russell Sherman for encouraging me to attend that initial council meeting over a decade ago. Attending meetings is a great way to stay connected on issues impacting our region’s fisheries, highlighting the need to protect coastal communities and the men and women who make their livelihoods from the sea.
At the Fishermen’s Alliance we all strongly believe fishermen possess the solutions to the challenges we face, and our work is guided by the energy and expertise of local fishermen. I hope to continue to elevate and support the next generation of men and women, provide a voice for them at the local and federal level, and coordinate fishermen participation in meetings of the NEFMC.
That will lead to better management outcomes in the face of a changing climate.
More information and audio recordings from the June Council meeting can be found here: https://www.nefmc.org/calendar/june-2023-council-meeting
(Aubrey Ellertson Church is the Fisheries Policy Manager at the Fishermen’s Alliance)