By John Pappalardo
So many of us put in so much hard work to enact protections for herring in our waters, understanding that these small forage fish are crucial to a healthy ecosystem but have been nearly wiped out by one style of fishery working in devastating, massive ways.
We won that fight, and now the federal government has in place thoughtful, constructive measures designed to bring herring back both offshore and to our rivers and streams that should teem at this very moment of every year.
What we accomplished was targeted, and smart: Mid-water pair-trawls, large boats working in tandem, using small-mesh nets that can be as big as football fields, need to stay more than 12 miles off the New England coast, out to 20 miles for an especially sensitive area off Cape Cod. It’s a big ocean, and they can fish elsewhere, but crucial near-shore waters must be better protected from the intense fishing pressure they exert.
Now the bad news:
A dozen or so midwater pair-trawlers responsible for a great deal of the damage to New England’s herring population have banded together and sued the federal government, specifically the Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service, looking to get the new rules thrown out.
There are only two things anyone needs to know to understand how disingenuous this lawsuit really is.
First: For 15 years, these very people have fought tooth and nail to keep impartial, federal fishing observers off their boats. The only solid explanation for that resistance is that they have something to hide. And what they have to hide is the way their fishing practices really work, how destructive they can be.
Second: Look at the stocks. The herring population has been devastated in the years since these midwater pair-trawlers started fishing nearby. After the famous 200-mile limit on foreign vessels was enacted, we had a hiatus from this kind of fishing pressure and the herring had been coming back. Now they are at historic lows as measured by every reputable scientific standard.
Does anyone think that’s a coincidence?
There are a dozen other things that could be said about this self-serving lawsuit, but I’ll throw in just one more. This group, who calls themselves “Sustainable Harvest,” argues that fishery managers should not consider the concept of “localized depletion,” meaning they shouldn’t focus management plans on smaller, specific areas where fish stocks and spawning areas have been wiped out. The obvious reason why this group makes that argument is because herring stocks in our communities have been slammed so hard, if localized depletion can be considered then you have to do something to stop it. Which begs the question: If you shouldn’t and can’t look at local areas and take steps to help them recover, what are you supposed to be managing?
Commercial and recreational fishermen up and down the coast, town, county, and state officials, conservation and environmental groups, coalesced to build and enact the smart measures now in place. We shared a vision, which is not always the case, and we convinced the federal government to do the right thing. Now come a handful of midwater pair-trawlers to try to use the federal courts to overturn a deep community consensus.
They have a right to appeal, of course. But they’re wrong morally, wrong environmentally, wrong economically, and wrong legally. We’ll do everything we can to prove every one of those facts, and if we need to return to all of you for more support to do so, rest assured we will.