Mar 30, 2022 | Over the Bar

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Seufert

By John Pappalardo

We took a body blow and setback a few weeks ago, in the form of a federal judge’s ruling.

The judge overturned a landmark decision from the New England Fishery Management Council to create a broad buffer zone along our coast to stop mid-water trawlers from wiping out herring and other forage fish close to shore.

As many of you know, we spent more than a decade fighting to protect our waters and river and ocean herring, in turn protecting the fisheries and stocks that depend on them, while helping revitalize our historic town herring runs.

We built unanimous support from every Cape Cod town, our county leadership, our elected representatives at the State House and in Washington.

The New England fishery council, comprised of members from Maine to Connecticut, voted with only one dissent to move forward with this crucial protection.

It was enacted, and fishermen already are reporting improvements in the vitality of local waters.

But Judge Leo T. Sorokin ignored all that. He overturned the closest thing you’ll ever see to consensus agreement in fishery policy, and he did so because of one issue, one idea he says was not sufficiently “proven”:

Localized depletion.

The concept of localized depletion is simple, something everyone who ever has ever fished sees and understands: Distinct areas, pounded by destructive gear and rapacious pressure, get fished out. They become barren until they are allowed to recover.

In hearing after hearing, year after year, the most respected fishermen up and down the coast testified that mid-water trawlers, with nets the size of football fields, misnamed because those nets can be 90 feet tall in 100 feet of water, catch and kill everything in their wakes. “Depletion” is a polite term.

But Judge Sorokin ruled that this obvious truth had not been proven. Instead, he ruled that “localized depletion” is an idea that does not justify creating public policy to stop it. Here’s his way of putting that:

“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.”

This is maddening. Besides ignoring all the other issues raised about the destructiveness of mid-water trawls like gear conflicts, stock assessments proving that herring has been reduced to a tiny fraction of historic numbers, a ruling like this sends a clear message to fishermen:

Your testimony, your years of experience and knowledge, is nothing but “anecdote.” Unless you can somehow translate what you know to be true into “scientific” terms, identical baseline studies compared year after year, data in columns with variables removed, studies published in journals and bylined with a PhD after your name, then what you know doesn’t count.

This is outrageous, and confirms the worst fears of our community.

I’m urging everyone I can find in federal management, joined by allies who supported our effort, to appeal. There are ways to do that, to say that this one judge got it wrong, way wrong, and has no understanding of the oceans, our fishing community, or the devastating impact of his opinion. Stand by for more news on that.

In addition, there remains opportunity for those involved to offer alternative “remedies” to the obvious crisis at hand, the dramatic reduction of herring and other small forage fish in our waters.

Meanwhile, here’s an irony:

Because it has been proven that these mid-water trawlers exceeded the amount of fish they were allowed to land in a previous year, that “overage” is being applied this year as what they call “payback.” That amount combined with the latest stock assessments that once again showed decimated herring populations – though even that is not considered proof of the impact of this indiscriminate harvesting — means that while Judge Sorokin’s ruling would allow them to scour our shores again, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see these trawlers anytime soon.

That’s a back-door, short-term victory at best. So we’ll keep fighting to encourage stocks to recover, revive our herring runs, and give hundreds, actually thousands of fishermen in small-boat fleets a fair chance. And as soon as we know the best way for you to help, you’ll know too.

John Pappalardo

CEO, The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance


e-Magazine PDF’s