By Zack Klyver and Pete Kaizer
Reprinted from Bangor Daily News
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is releasing $11 million in disaster relief funds to Atlantic herring harvesters, of which $7 million will go to Maine. These funds should be used to phase out herring trawling by buying back fishing permits in an effort to increase herring stocks and to protect other marine life.
U.S. Atlantic herring landings in the 2000s averaged 206 million pounds annually but have since decreased to below 22 million pounds in 2020 and 2021. The New England Fishery Management Council led a process to craft a 10-year rebuilding plan. This dramatic downturn in herring is likely because variables with climate change are reducing ocean productivity resulting in seven consecutive years of low numbers of young fish surviving to maturity.
In Nova Scotia, Canadian scientists discovered a nearly 30-percent drop in herring egg production over the last 50 years. This means the total volume of spawning age fish must be kept 30 percent higher to maintain the same number of fish. Climate change means that, more than ever, we need increased conservation.
Atlantic herring is a vital oil-rich prey for important sportfish like the Atlantic bluefin tuna and striped bass, Atlantic cod, and a great variety of seabird and marine mammal species. Herring eggs can number in the billions and are a critical food for hundreds of species including lobster and crabs.
Midwater trawling vessels often work in pairs towing a fine mesh net the size of a football field through the ocean at high speeds of 6 to 7 knots. Many of these vessels can hold up to a million pounds of fish and swiftly remove large volumes of Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel. The huge nets are indiscriminate, killing protected sea turtles, dolphins, pilot whales and threatened fish species as bycatch.
Northeast states, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the USDA have put more than $200 million into restoration to recover river herring and shad populations. Millions of these fish have been caught annually in herring trawl fisheries resulting in many river runs of only hundreds of fish.
Over the last 20 years, a diverse and strong coalition of conservation, fishing, and ecotourism groups has worked with the New England Fishery Management Council to create conservation policy: caps on bycatch — non-commercially valuable marine life; regulations that prohibit slipping of nets and dumping of catch; increased observer coverage; a harvest control rule; and a seasonal midwater trawl ban extending 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine from Eastport to Provincetown, Massachusetts, between June 1 and Oct. 1.
However, fisheries and wildlife south of Provincetown have few protections against destructive midwater and pair trawling gear. There are no restrictions on how close the nets can fish to the bottom, the size of the nets and the speed of the vessels. Stakeholders have raised serious questions about the potential for the nets to impact groundfish and fragile bottom habitat. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been significantly impacted and is only partly and seasonally protected.
Many countries have banned midwater and pair trawling as a way to end overfishing and bycatch, and restore fish populations. Canada, Indonesia, Iran, Spain, Belize, Hong Kong, and Palau have done so. Australia has established no midwater and pair trawl fishing zones along the southern coast and prohibitions on nighttime fishing to avoid marine mammal bycatch. In Brazil the coastal fisheries have seen a great recovery of fish reserves by banning midwater trawling.
The New England Fishery Management Council should act to expand nearshore midwater and pair trawl prohibitions along the entire New England coast. Yet, such “buffer zones” are only part of the solution as we work toward a sustainable herring resource in the face of climate change. The council and NOAA Fisheries should work together to buy back trawl permits and limit the size of the herring vessels, nets, mesh and engine horsepower as a way to sustainably manage herring for greatest benefit to the ecosystem and all the businesses that depend on a healthy herring population.
Zack Klyver grew up in a commercial fishing family in Eastport. He is vice chair of the New England Fishery Management Council Herring Advisory Panel and co-chair of the North Atlantic Whale Watch Naturalist Association. Capt. Pete Kaizer is a commercial and recreational fisherman from Nantucket, Massachusetts. He serves on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council Squid, Mackerel, and Butterfish Advisory Panel.
(Editor’s note: The Bangor Daily News recently published an opinion piece that we wanted to share; it includes a creative and feasible solution to the profound problem many of us have been working on for a decade — how to protect ocean and river herring, allow many fishing stocks to recover, and keep the local fishing fleet on the water.)