By Doreen Leggett
Many across the Cape say that industrial-sized boats have removed enormous amounts of ocean herring from the inshore, leaving whales, cod, tuna and others to look elsewhere.
But those who make their living on the sea point out that it isn’t just forage fish that disappear when pairs of big midwater trawlers come through. The boats catch everything in their wake; pollock, striped bass, big fish and small.
That’s why they believe it is crucial that new protections – lobbied for by hundreds of voices in the region – are codified into law. The last public comment period before action can be taken ends next month.
“This is it,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “We need people to step up for herring one more time to make sure these important rules become reality.”
John Our, who has been fishing off Chatham for close to 50 years, has seen the midwater trawlers in action time and time again. He remembers one day years ago when he caught 10,000 pounds of haddock; when he came back to the same spot a day or so later, after mid-water trawlers had been through, there was nothing.
Barnstable captain Eric Hesse said anyone who has observed the big boats understands what happens when they decide to set nets in an area:
“Typically a few vessels will start fishing and within hours the rest of the fleet will converge and continue to fish until there is literally nothing left. Whatever other fish, as well as other fishermen’s gear, mammals, etc., that were in the area that aren’t captured in the nets leave.”
Last year, a telling moment was captured on video – dead fish worth plenty in a fish market floating dead and useless, discarded from a trawler.
“The video taken off the backside of the Cape just proves my point,” Our said.
The video surfaced just as new measures to protect herring were being considered by the New England Fishery Management Council. The rules put in strict limits on herring landings and a 12-mile buffer midwater trawls must respect from Canada to Connecticut. That buffer bumps out to 20 miles off the eastern shore of the Cape.
“The Council recommended the proposed inshore midwater trawl restricted area to minimize local depletion and user group conflict when midwater trawl vessels harvesting herring overlap with other user groups (i.e., commercial fisheries, recreational fisheries, ecotourism) that rely on herring as forage and provide inshore conservation benefits,” the document states.
After wending a slow way through the federal process, the new rules were recently published in the Federal Register for final comment.
“After 10 years of debate, the New England Fishery Management Council has finally accepted the proposals favored by Cape communities. It will have benefits for all our commercial and recreational fisheries and the nearshore ecosystem,” said Pappalardo.
Some fishermen see the approval of the trawls as an experimental fishery close to 20 years ago as the beginning of a huge decline in the fish the Cape fleet depended on.
Many Cape fishermen had built successful careers tuna fishing east of Chatham in the summer months and cod fishing in winter.
That changed in 2000 with the arrival of the midwater trawl fleet, which “pounded flat” the herring population, said Captain Hesse.
“The significant fall tuna fishery has never occurred again in this area, and what little cod remain do not come near the area either,” Hesse said. “If these areas are ever to recover, these vessels need to be banned now.”
Most fishermen out of Chatham have had to diversify and fish for less well-known fish, such as dogfish and skate.
Our doesn’t put the demise of the cod fishery solely at the feet of trawlers, but they certainly didn’t help.
“Contributing factor,” he said.
And the buffer zone will help not only now, but in the future because it protects spawning areas.
Hesse, and longtime charter boat captain Bruce Peters, expect to see other positive changes, such as chubbier tuna.
“The tuna here are skinny. They look like pickerel. They aren’t fat and round,” said Peters. “Pushing these guys offshore is a good thing. Without herring you don’t have haddock, whales, stripers, tuna, cod, dogfish. Everything eats (them). It is the staff of life in the ocean.”
Interest groups across the region rallied last year, advocating for more protective regulations. Boards of selectmen across the Cape, as well as the state legislative delegation, the Barnstable County Commissioners, and the county Assembly of Delegates wrote letters of support partly because of herring’s traditional importance, but also because of the huge economic boost commercial and recreational fishing provides.
Conservation groups, including the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, also came forward, many concerned about river herring populations, which have also plummeted. River herring is taken up in the nets of the midwater trawls because they swim with their ocean cousins. Millions of those herring came within miles of their spawning rivers, but never made it.
“As a kid in the 70s, I remember seeing herring runs full of fish every spring, which helped to define my experience growing up on the Cape,” said Michael Lach, executive director of the Harwich Conservation Trust. “Within a short time, we’ve seen such a precipitous decline. Thanks to these new regulations promoted by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and supportive partners including local land trusts like Harwich Conservation Trust, we have a chance to restore that quintessential spring migration experience to be enjoyed by our kids, grandkids, and future generations.”
To join the chorus of comment, go here: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/08/21/2019-18032/magnuson-stevens-fishery-conservation-and-management-act-provisions-fisheries-of-the-northeastern or write to Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930. Mark the outside of the envelope, “Comments on Herring Amendment 8.” All comment must be received by October 21.