Over the Bar

Aug 29, 2018 | Over the Bar

Finally, a herring hearing with a shot at real change

When people ask me to pinpoint one of the most important changes we could make to improve our fisheries, and our offshore ecosystem, they’re often surprised by my one-word answer:


That gives me the opportunity to use a lot more than one word to say why, and to ask for help now, at a crucial moment, when together we might be able to make this change happen.

Most of us think of river herring when we say the word, those silver fish that return to fresh water after long ocean journeys to climb freshwater streams and spawn in the ponds where they were born.

But I’m thinking even more about ocean herring, their cousins, who also migrate far and wide but stay in salt all their lives, spawning offshore.

These are forage fish, and for far longer than any of us can imagine they have played a vital role in the fertile cycle of the ocean. Their teeming schools attract myriad fish that count on them for a great meal, from tuna and whales to codfish and striped bass. And we, in turn, take advantage of that attraction, and fish.

Some of us are old enough to remember when large foreign factory ships, often working in pairs, trawling nets the size of football fields between them, fished our waters so hard that they practically wiped out herring on Georges Bank. We saw what happened to the rest of the ecosystem; our fishermen took the hit. National outrage was so strong that Congress created what came to be called the 200-mile limit, forcing foreign boats to stay that far away.

It took close to two decades for herring to come back in real numbers, but when they did, before long so too did the big trawl boats, this time American owned. Try as we might here on the Cape, we could not convince our management councils and fisheries regulators to avoid the destructive pattern from which we had only recently recovered. Catch levels leapt up tons upon tons, without acknowledging what that would do to the whole system that relies on these fish – including us.

And here we are again; the herring population has crashed. Nature’s interconnected structure, like the fishery, has collapsed.

By the way, these big midwater trawl boats do not differentiate between ocean herring and their river herring kin, which often school together before parting company for salt and fresh. In Massachusetts we are not allowed to touch or take a single river herring that has managed to make its way to our streams and ponds. Yet just a few miles offshore, trawlers are catching tons of them as “by-catch,” discarding them dead. Great effort and expense by most of our towns to try to revive our historic herring runs are not creating the benefits they should, in large part because of this offshore pillage.

Anyone who doubts these facts need look only as far as the Gulf of Maine. The Gulf managed to restrict midwater trawling close to shore a decade or so ago, and create fishing closures at the time of year when herring come back to spawn. Now the Gulf is seeing meaningful numbers of ocean herring, with river herring rebounding as well.

Is this cause and effect? Certainly seems so. Might there be other contributing reasons? Sure. But to ignore both common sense and what we can see in real life seems absurd.

Now we have a real chance, after more than a decade of frustrating work, to right this wrong. The New England Fishery Management Council, on which I sit, will take up this issue at its regular meeting in Plymouth at the Hotel 1620, on September 24-27. Finally, proposals on the table to create strong, year-round buffer zones for ocean herring off the Cape and Islands are moving front and center, driven partly by simple merit, partly by proof that herring populations have crashed.

Already, pretty much every Cape Cod town, our county commissioners and assembly of delegates, our elected representatives at the State House, our fishermen and people who care about our oceans, have weighed in to support this cause.

But there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of advocacy: When people show up at these hearings, testify, make their voices heard, and bear witness, change is much more likely to happen.

So now I’m asking you to stay tuned for details from us about the exact day and time for this hearing. And then please come, pack the room, leave no doubt about where we stand. Protecting herring is the key way to protect our independent, small-boat fishing community, to respect the amazing, intricate offshore world on which it relies, and we all thrive.

When I take my seat at the Council table, and look out at a sea of familiar faces, I’ll know that my school has arrived, and I’ll have a chance to help make a true sea change.


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