By Doreen Leggett
“This is a very good day.”
Career fisherman Charlie Dodge had just witnessed the creation of what many feared the New England Fishery Management Council would delay once again: vital protections for Atlantic herring, a small fish that has a larger-than-life role in the health of the Cape’s environment and economy.
“It’s something we have been fighting for for 15 years,” said Dodge, as he stood outside a hearing room at the 1620 Hotel in Plymouth. “I’m glad to see that they are finally looking at the ocean as an ecosystem.”
Dodge was joined by many fishermen who had spent a generation successfully building a life harvesting groundfish, such as cod, only to watch it disappear as the forage fish they depend on were hit hard by large midwater trawls that are both very efficient and voracious.
“At least 60 boats that date back to the turn of the last century have been displaced,” said Mark Leach from Harwich, a former groundfisherman, now lobsterman.
“There is no more groundfishery of any meaning,” he added. “Having a lack of natural forage is keeping the groundfish stocks from coming back. Codfish have a tremendous dietary cycle and need herring.”
Many hold the industrial-scale boats, working in pairs towing small-mesh nets the size of football fields, in large part responsible for this demise, the slow erosion of other successful fisheries like tuna and striped bass, and negative impacts on the whale watch industry.
The federal management council, after years of work and copious public comment, took several steps. In a unanimous vote they adopted a so-called “control rule” that will reduce the total amount of herring that can be caught, adjusting the catch not only to population changes, but also to factors that measure how important the fish is to the entire ecosystem. The new control rule was not as ambitious as some wanted, but it was one the Fishermen’s Alliance – and other advocacy groups – could live with as a compromise.
The council also overwhelmingly supported a 12-mile, year-round buffer zone off the coast from Montauk in New York all the way to the Canadian border, prohibiting midwater trawls in those inshore areas.
John Pappalardo, council member and chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, also moved successfully to add additional protections off the Cape Cod coast. Two large blocks beyond the 12-mile limit create a buffer that extends close to 25 miles, protecting key spawning areas.
Pappalardo said he saw firsthand the damage the midwater trawl fishery had done during his time as a commercial fisherman. The blocks he added mean that spawning herring and their historic migration will be better protected.
“I think that is really important,” Pappalardo said. “If these areas are left undisturbed it becomes another opportunity for communities down my way to enjoy a fishery.”
Although long in coming, council members did not face a simple decision. Some testified the protections would hurt iconic industries, such as commercial lobstering in Maine and Massachusetts.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the council didn’t have to slash the catch so extensively to protect herring. She said it will be impossible for Maine lobstermen to find 77 million pounds of herring bait, which the council is eliminating through its decision.
“We predict it’s really going to be devastating,” she said, a sentiment echoed by Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
Owners of midwater trawls also spoke up about damage to their livelihoods. One said he would lose 35 to 70 percent of his income if forced to fish so far offshore.
“This will kill us,” said Gerry O’Neil. “Any one of these buffers that you guys are proposing will put us out of business; there is no doubt in my mind.”
But others weren’t convinced. Tuna fisherman Chris Weiner, who has been advocating for the protection of herring since he got out of college in 2004, said midwater trawls were never meant to fish inshore. When they were first approved as a fishery they were supposed to stay offshore, near Georges Bank, upwards of 30 miles off the coast.
Others argued that herring aren’t the purview of a few.
Rob DeCosta, a former selectman on Nantucket who has been fishing for 50 years, has seen the serious socio-economic harm the lack of herring has inflicted on everything from to fishing to tourism.
“We need these reductions,” he said. “It’s not just the Maine lobstermen who need these herring. It is everyone on the East Coast.”
One driving element in the council’s decision was that scientific assessments of the overall herring stock show a dramatic, multi-year decline, so much so that the word “collapse” is being used by federal researchers and environmental advocates alike.
In addition, river herring, cousins of ocean herring who come to fresh water to spawn, have also suffered. They are caught near shore in the maws of the trawlers – unintentionally but legally — and become “discard,” thrown overboard dead. Millions of tons a year are wiped out, impacting local herring runs trying to recover.
Karen Alexander, a historical ecologist, said the protections were a good start and provided an “incredible opportunity” to rebuild small-boat communities along the coast. Peter Baker, a Chatham resident, agreed. A former staff member of the Fishermen’s Alliance, he started the Herring Alliance when he began working for the Pew Charitable Trust more than a decade ago.
“New England managers deserve credit for being among the first to follow a public, science-based process with concrete actions to conserve forage fish,” said Baker in a statement.
Now the changes go to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for final approval, with supporters hoping they go into effect as soon as possible.
“This dramatic success for our coastal fisheries, and for the ecosystem, couldn’t have happened without strong support from our community on the Cape,” concluded Pappalardo. “It’s taken a long time, too long really, but now we are in a stronger position to rebuild not just the herring population, but our traditional recreational and commercial fisheries.
“Bring it on.”