By Doreen Leggett
The room was close to full, but still people continued to stream into the Chatham community center Tuesday evening, June 19.
John Our, who has a deep fishing history and roots in town, arrived to show his concern for the community, its tradition and future.
Kurt Martin, lobsterman and weir fisherman, who has a five-year old son who hopes to fish some day, took a seat with his wife Lara.
Michael Lach, executive director of the Harwich Conservation Trust, who has dedicated his career to protecting open space on the Cape, wanted to show his support.
Dave Currier, who grew up in Orleans and is now a selectmen there, owns a restaurant that serves local seafood and felt very much involved.
Sandy McLardy, an electrician, who wanted to express his belief that those who live in a community will always protect it better than outsiders.
Andrew Gottlieb arrived wearing two hats, planning to speak both for the Mashpee board of selectmen on which he serves, and as head of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.
David Pierce, head of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, wanted to hear the testimony first-hand.
All of about 100 people who came out on the warm June night were there for one reason – to protect the Cape’s ecosystem and economy. They were there to let the New England Fishery Management Council know that mid-water trawlers should no longer be allowed to scoop up millions of pounds of herring just off our shores. In the process, the industrial-scale ships should no longer be able to take huge numbers of many kinds of forage fish, leaving little for larger animals to eat and shattering a strong and varied fishing industry.
Deirdre Boelke, fishery analyst with the council, laid out options the council is considering. The hearing in Chatham was the last of seven up and down the coast, council representatives gathering input on “Amendment 8,” a 500-page document. The amendment is designed to prevent overfishing of Atlantic herring, taking into account herring’s role in the ecosystem, the significant decrease of herring close to shore, and all the related impacts.
Multiple alternatives on the table range from doing nothing to implementing seasonal or year-round buffer zones of anywhere from six to 50 nautical miles off the Cape.
Those in the room were clear. All of the few dozen speakers asked for a 50-mile, year-round buffer.
Many in the crowd were on the water and remember when mid-water trawls, permitted as an experimental fishery, arrived two decades ago. They have seen cod, tuna, and striped bass suffer with the arrival of the trawlers and then seen those losses reverberate through the rest of the economy.
“It’s ridiculous that one group can wipe out so many industries,” said Charlie Dodge, who has been fishing out of Chatham for 45 years. “You can’t kill all the bait fish in the ocean.”
Dodge said the midwater trawl fleet has not been held accountable. Small, 30-foot day boats have federal observers on their boats close to 20 percent of the time. For midwater trawls the percentage is two, he said.
Dodge, and many others, said herring trawlers catch a lot more than their intended target. They catch anything and everything with small mesh nets that reach to the bottom.
“After they leave the waters are virtually a desert,” said Bill Henchy, a lawyer and tuna fisherman with an extensive background in conservation.
Peter Kaiser, former Nantucket County Commissioner, spoke of more than just a buffer. He advocated banning the gear. Unlike every other gear, which can target certain species, the trawls – which often work in pairs towing nets the length of football fields — have no selectivity.
He said the Nantucket experience was clear: One day the bait fish were there and after the midwater trawls came through, they were gone.
“It was like hitting a switch,” he said.
Bob DeCosta, of Albecore Charters, said the striped bass fishery off Nantucket was considered one of the best, but no longer. No bait, no bass.
“Keep them outside of 50 miles please, you are talking about small communities,” the captain told council representatives.
John Our remembered one day years ago when he caught 10,000 pounds of haddock. He came back a day or so later to the same spot, after mid-water trawlers had been through, and there was nothing.
“I have dealt with these guys for 25 years,” Our said. “The people that are left here today are survivors.”
Andy Baler, who now owns Bluefin Sushi, was a fish buyer for 27 years. He said that with the groundfish gone there was no way to make a living. Managers choosing to protect midwater trawls, which supply bait for some lobster fishermen, “are sacrificing a $500 million fleet for $20 million.”
Town officials also commented on the loss of storied fish like cod.
Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith read a letter from the selectmen detailing the importance of the fishing fleet, not only in direct value but to history and culture.
“Our community depends on a healthy nearshore fishery,” Goldsmith said. “Chatham residents have committed $11 million in waterfront infrastructure improvements.”
Taxpayers invest in the success of commercial fishing, and the value of that investment would increase if the mid-water boats were pushed offshore and groundfish returned.
“The benefit to our fleet would be tremendous,” Goldsmith said.
Towns across the Cape have also spent much time, effort and money protecting river herring, a cousin to the ocean herring that return to fresh water to spawn, only to have them caught in the nets of the mid-water trawlers. Ironically, while the midwater fleet caught tons of river herring last year that they discarded as “by-catch,” no one in Massachusetts is allowed to take as much as a single fish from the runs along the coast.
Former commercial fishermen and charter boat captain Mike Abdow told council representatives that fishermen are making a lot of sacrifices and working under stringent regulations to rebuild fish populations. Their sacrifices will be for naught if the stocks have nothing to eat.
He argued that the problem should have been fixed long ago. “Maybe we don’t have the money and the power that these boats have,” he said.
Patrick Paquette of the Striped Bass Association, one of the last to speak, called attention to the varied backgrounds of those who had testified – charter boat fishermen, recreational anglers, hook fishermen, gillnetters, lobstermen, environmentalists, river herring counters, selectmen – and said that these groups seldom agree. But they do now.
“This (form of fishing) is incompatible with our community. It’s incompatible with our ecosystem,” Paquette said.
John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, is a council member and has been fighting to protect the nearshore herring population for close to 20 years. People in attendance mentioned a trip they took with him to Washington, D.C. years ago to try to address the problem.
He thinks this time, finally, there is real momentum for change.
“This probably is the single most important issue we face as a management council,” he said after the meeting. “And having the strength and support represented by the turnout at this hearing is exactly what we need to make sure the council makes the right decision for our communities and fishermen.”
The council is expected to vote on which version of Amendment 8 to support at their meeting in Plymouth during the last week of September.