By John Pappalardo
We’ve talked a lot about herring over the past few months, and it sure looks like all that talk is paying off:
The New England Fishery Management Council is now calling for a 12-mile buffer zone off the coast from Montauk to Canada, to move factory-style mid-water trawlers away from inshore fishing areas. And just as important for our community, two more “boxes” east of the Cape would protect vital spawning grounds out to about 20 miles.
From the wheelhouse to the State House, people came together on this one. Those who understand how important ocean herring are to the whole offshore world and web — fishermen foremost — stepped up. Those who care about river herring and reviving freshwater runs, hoping to see them once again become a miraculous annual event, joined forces. Selectmen, town councilors, county commissioners, members of the assembly of delegates, state representatives and senators, all weighed in.
Given the strength of this coalition, and the power of the argument, maybe the real surprise is how long it took to get a buffer zone passed; we’ve been on this for more than a decade. And push to shove, a scientific assessment that the herring stocks are at historic lows, no doubt mainly because of pressure and small-fish mortality caused by trawlers, added urgency to the push to create protection now.
Sure, it would have been better to have done this before the stocks crashed, but better late than never. And now, hopefully we’ll give the amazing ocean a chance to revive and rebuild, which in turn will give our small-boat fleet an opportunity to do the same. Our bet is that when the herring and other forage fish come back, so too will bigger fish that have always relied on them for a good meal.
Many people are asking me if this is now a done deal, if the Council’s overwhelming vote translates directly into new rules and regulations. The answer, unfortunately, is not quite. Here’s how it works:
The Council, the last word as far as citizen participation in fisheries goes in the Northeast, recommends policy to federal officials; its opinion does not have the force of law. That means Council votes go to NOAA Fisheries for review and hopefully implementation.
NOAA looks hard at whether the Council’s decisions are in line with federal fishing mandates and goals spelled out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s driving legislation for fishery management. It also assesses whether there are unintended consequences, financial or otherwise, to Council votes. Proposals need to enter the bureaucracy in Washington, wending through the Department of Commerce and passing muster with the Office of Management and Budget. Sometimes this process can take months, even years.
So, to use a land metaphor, we’re not out of the woods yet. But we have made a convincing case that these new buffer zones are not just reasonable but necessary, to protect both spawning areas and our community-based fishing fleet. And I believe that an emerging new generation of leadership at NOAA Fisheries recognizes the importance of a more holistic approach to fisheries management, thinking about the eco-system in its beauty and complexity rather than species by species. Herring is the poster child for the need for this kind of approach.
When might we get final review on the Council vote? Not before the beginning of the next fishing season, unfortunately. Which means it’s likely we’ll once again see mid-water trawlers, towing nets the size of football fields, plying waters just a few miles off the Cape’s backshore just as river and ocean herring migrate our way come spring.
If I could wave a magic wand I would at least require every trawler, every trip, to carry observers to document the amount of dead fish they discard, which might limit the damage.
But I have no such wand. So instead I rely on public opinion, strong science, and officials who work hard to earn the public’s trust. And I try to take the long view, celebrating true progress:
We’ve taken a huge step forward; there are a few more to go.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)