By Doreen Leggett
When John Our was a kid, he’d go out to sea with his father and see enormous factory trawlers from Russia and Poland catch so much herring it would take days to cut all the fish.
Small boats from the Cape that relied on groundfish wouldn’t stick around because once herring were gone, so were the cod and haddock that fed on them.
More than 50 years later, the foreign fleet is a memory, pushed beyond 200 miles by federal law. But there still is no herring.
“We did it to ourselves,” said Our.
Last month, at a New England Fishery Management Council meeting, members once again tried to protect this vital forage fish targeted by mid-water trawlers. For those on the Cape who depend on the fish that depend on the herring, it’s one more step in an effort that has taken more than two decades.
The latest effort requires commercial fishermen and others to step forward yet again and speak about the need to protect the resource in public hearings that begin this winter. Testimony will shape proposed protections.
There was a moment earlier this month when it looked like the chance of creating those protections would be put off yet again, remanded back to committee. Further delay would continue to hurt the Cape’s fisheries and ecosystem, which John Pappalardo, council member and CEO of the Fishermen’s Alliance, couldn’t stomach.
“I’ve lived through this for 17 years,” he told fellow council members at a meeting in Plymouth. “And now we have no herring and I want to rebuild it and I think you do too.”
Pappalardo didn’t envision having to make that plea again. In 2019, Pappalardo, Cape fishermen, and concerned community members up and down the coast gave a collective sigh of relief because federal regulations were passed that protected Atlantic herring.
But even as Cape fishermen, anglers, charter boat captains, naturalists, and river herring counters began to see results of a buffer zone that kept mid-water trawlers 20 miles off the coast, bad news came.
Federal Judge Leo Sorokin, responding to a suit brought by Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, a trade group representing companies that fish for herring and mackerel, vacated the buffer zone. He ruled that “localized depletion,” when huge amounts of fish are removed from an area, a concept used to justify regulation, is without enough proof to justify creating public policy.
“Though these comments (of New England fishermen) can certainly provide anecdotal support for the final rule, they are not an adequate substitute for scientific evidence of localized depletion and its link to MWT (mid-water trawl) vessels,” he wrote.
“I was so mad. It’s ridiculous,” said Our. “We all thought it was a done deal.”
Since the outcry that followed, Council members have worked on devising wording that will be strong enough to withstand legal action.
Pappalardo brought forward a motion he hopes will achieve lasting protections. His motion asks to “address spatial and temporal allocation and management of Atlantic herring at the management unit level to minimize user conflicts, contribute to optimum yield, and support rebuilding of the resource.”
If all the herring are removed from the inshore by midwater trawlers, that hamstrings a range of businesses. Management is supposed to work to avoid user conflicts while allowing for optimum yield, conserving a resource in a way that is not discriminatory and fair and equitable to all.
Some on the council thought information gathered in yet more hearings would still be anecdotal, others thought that it was outside the bounds of the action the Council was expected to discuss.
“We absolutely had multiple alternatives under consideration. I don’t think it is an expansion,” said Pappalardo. He added, “We manage everything by space and time.”
The vast majority of the council agreed.
Earlier, Papplardo had brought forward tasks for staff that he hoped would show the breadth and variety of concerns that have been brought forward since the first herring amendment – Amendment 1 – was approved. Now, the council is working on Amendment 10.
He wanted concerns that have been raised over the years to be compiled and all documented user conflicts listed.
Our has watched the process play out since the first amendment. At the time, he said, the midwater trawl fishery was started as a pilot. Fishermen on the Cape were told they “wouldn’t even see the boats,” a statement that proved untrue.
Our and other commercial fishermen have been next to the huge boats and have seen them catch everything in their path. Nothing escapes.
It’s like fishing with a “sock,” he said.
Sock refers to the fine mesh nets the midwater trawling vessels, often in pairs, tow through the ocean at speeds of 6 to 7 knots. Many of these vessels use nets the size of a football field that can hold up to a million pounds. Fishermen have seen the large vessels catch everything; baby fish, sea turtles, dolphins, pilot whales and threatened fish species as bycatch.
There is one significant change from the last time protections were approved. The herring stock has crashed.
Numbers dropped from an average of 206 million pounds annually in the 2000s, to below 22 million pounds in 2020 and 2021
“It’s horribly depleted,” said Captain Eric Hesse, who fishes for haddock and tuna, both species that rely on herring.
Council Member Mike Pierdinock said there are still consistent examples of user conflicts.
“We can point out to these waters where these conflicts are occurring offshore,” he told the group, referring to Plymouth Bay outside the meeting room’s window.
Pierdinock said because herring has been removed by midwater trawls, other fishing boats need to go 30 to 50 miles offshore. Many vessels don’t have the capacity to go that far safely.
“That’s the conflict that exists,” Pierdinock said. “I don’t want to go all the way to the Hague line to get a bluefin tuna.”