Hands up for herring

Apr 24, 2024 | Plumbing the Depths

Captain Ted Ligenza speaks in favor of greater protections for sea herring. Photo by David Hills/ www.fishypictures.com

By Doreen Leggett

New England Fishery Management Council staff wanted to hear from the public about how to protect beleaguered Atlantic Herring. And they did, but they also heard a lot about time past and time wasted.

Abigail Archer was one of the first to speak at the hearing in Buzzards Bay at the end of March.  A member of the Cape Cod Salties sportfishing club, she said every herring run in the state was closed to harvest since 2006 because of low numbers of fish.

“This means we have 18-year-old people … who have not had the opportunity to harvest river herring for food, for bait and to catch other food. That’s a cultural practice that people engaged in with parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors and that hasn’t been able to happen,” Archer said.

Tyler McLaughlin of “Wicked Tuna” fame had driven down from Bailey Island, Maine to let council representatives know that he had been raising his voice in support of herring since he was 14. He was tuna fishing off Cape Cod with his dad and saw midwater trawl fishing vessels “make a mistake” and leave a trail of dead striped bass more than a mile long. Now he is 36 and the problem continues.

“I don’t understand why we are allowing big powerful boats to go out there and ravage the ocean,” he said. “At some point in my life I would like to have children, and I would like them to be fishermen like I am.”

But what particularly moved the crowd was time immemorial.

Jason Steiding, Natural Resource Director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said the tribe’s connection to river herring has been continuous.

“They have literally sustained us for thousands and thousands of years. They represent rebirth. It’s a cultural resource. We are constantly losing our cultural resources. When you lose cultural resources, you can really lose part of your identity,” he said.

Thirty of 60 or more people gathered at the meeting spoke personally about how diminishing sea and river herring populations, and conflicts with midwater trawl boats, had impacted them.

The meeting in Bourne, run by Cheri Patterson, a council member, and Jamie Cournane, council staff, was the third of five public opportunities to comment on regulations to further protect herring. A written comment period is open until April 30.

The council is tasked with taking action to make sure herring “provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities, and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems.”

Many on the Cape and beyond believe that since midwater trawlers take such a sizeable portion of herring from inshore areas, there are few forage fish left for haddock, pollock, tuna, striped bass, whales and birds to eat. That hurts commercial and recreational fishermen, ecotourism and coastal communities.

“You take the bait, and you take the other fish with them,” said Mike Abdow, a longtime fisherman and charter boat captain. “I would like to see the midwater trawlers (moved) 25 miles off the coast.”

Council members were also looking for insights on how midwater trawl boats that often work in pairs, towing nets the size of football fields, conflict with other user groups.

Andy Baler’s comment helped lay them out:

“There is a conflict in every fishery that relies on herring as a food fish. So, our groundfish fisheries, we have done everything to (try to) bring them back. Nothing is coming back,” said Baler, fish buyer, restaurant owner, and Fishermen’s Alliance board member. That’s because “we have done nothing to change the one thing that interacts with every other fishery and that is the midwater trawl fishery. There is your conflict … Solve the problem. It’s the midwater trawl fishery.”

Other examples abounded.

Captain John Our has been fishing for 45 years, many of those years for groundfish such as haddock and cod. He has to take a federal observer 100 percent of the time to make sure he isn’t overfishing his quota.

Midwater trawls only take observers about 10 percent of the time.

“They are towing a sock,” he said, adding that he has seen what is caught in their nets. “It was groundfish, striped bass, pollock, haddock, all the stuff I catch.”

These guys throw it overboard, he said, adding they should be required to land the fish and buy the quota like other fishermen.

Our was further frustrated because he thought the situation had been resolved. He, and many others across the Cape, fought for a 20-mile buffer zone to the east of Cape Cod for midwater trawls, which can fish farther offshore than the Cape’s smaller boats.

That buffer zone was overturned by a judge in March 2022.

Peter Kaizer of Nantucket, who has been fishing since 1978, said that the short time the buffer was in place he saw a change.

“When they passed this law, the first fall, they stopped fishing on the east side of the island and the Cape, and it was like the place came alive again,” Kaizer said. “It was phenomenal.”

When they let the midwater trawls back in “it was like shutting a valve.”

Bill Amaru, a fisherman from Orleans and former council member, noted a lot had changed since midwater trawlers were first permitted.

“We had no idea we were going to be looking at the kind of power that this fleet has developed into. And it is really a shame that the fisheries service allowed it to grow the way it did,” Amaru said. “We have done more damage to our herring stocks than the Russians did in the 1970s.”

Kristina Hook of the Gay Head Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe is an elder and a teacher. She is 79 and has taught generations about the importance of herring, using the fish to tell the stories of spring. But as time has passed there are less and less herring to herald the season.

“You have no right to allow that interference, boats that suck up the herring,” Hook said. “Something the Creator gave us, it is inconceivable to me … that the state of Massachusetts and the federal government can take our sustenance for lobster bait.”

Aubrey Church, policy director for Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, said problems with the directed fishery went beyond immediate conflicts:

“We have concerns about midwater trawling occurring on known herring spawning grounds and egg mats, such as Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals,” Church said.

She added that observer data proves midwater trawls, despite their name, are fishing on the bottom and can harm egg mats. Fishing can disrupt the formation of schools, which can lead to further disruption of spawning.

She asked the council to protect ocean herring when they are spawning and river herring when they are gathering to return to the rivers to spawn.

Bret Stearns, Director of Natural Resources of Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, said in the nine years they have been counting river herring, numbers have dropped from 1.5 million to 32,500.

“There is certainly a conflict,” he noted.

If river herring are caught before they go back to the ponds they were born in, there will be no next generation.

“We have to keep in mind those herring have a home,” he said.

Andrew Jacobs, a laboratory manager and environmental technician for the tribe, said they have tested water quality and surveyed habitat and the ecosystem to see what could be impacting herring numbers.

“Everything is in place to have a thriving fishery,” he said. “All the evidence points to trawling.”

Linda Coombs of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, who lives in Mashpee, said it was a mistake to say the herring need to be managed.

“It’s not the herring and fish that need management,” she said. “The only system is the ecosystem and once we get back to how that works and why that works, and why the Creator put it in place, we won’t have these problems anymore.”

Mark Alan Lovewell from Martha’s Vineyard brought his guitar and sang a song he wrote about the history and plight of the herring to help close the hearing.

“Never was a spring when the herring didn’t come,” he sang. “Never a night when the fish didn’t run. Never a thought we’d get this way. That they would be in such trouble.”



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