By Doreen Leggett
Captain Ted Ligenza could have retired; he has been fishing for more than 40 years. But he was waiting.
He remembers how good the cod fishery off Chatham was in the winter, before midwater trawls came and changed everything.
And after more than 15 years battling for restrictions on the industrial-scale vessels, when 2019 dawned it looked like change finally would be ushered in. New regulations would limit the amount of herring the big boats would catch, plus establish a 20-mile buffer off the backshore of the Cape where they wouldn’t be able to fish.
Ligenza believes that if forage fish are protected, fish that the small boat fleet once used to build businesses – cod, haddock, pollock — would return.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m keeping my boat,” Ligenza said this fall. “I want to be able to fish in the winter again, that’s my dream.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made his dream closer to reality this November, approving those regulations.
“Hallelujah!” was the response of longtime Captain Charlie Dodge when he heard that after 20 years of effort necessary protections had become law. “It’s justified and has been more than necessary for a long time.”
The announcement from the federal fishery agency came days before Thanksgiving and contained much of what the Cape wanted, a 20-mile buffer off the peninsula’s backshore (12 miles off the coast elsewhere from Maine to Connecticut) and catch limits. Supporters believe the buffer will go a long way towards rebuilding the inshore ecosystem and be an enormous boost to the local economy.
Commercial fishermen saw the effects of the big boats, which work in pairs towing nets the size of football fields, in the early 2000s.
“It hasn’t been the same since,” said Captain John Our who, on the water starting with his dad when he was five, has a lengthy perspective. “When they come through they take everything.”
The local fishing industry has advocated for limits on the catch of herring since those days, arguing that the big trawlers didn’t catch just herring, they also caught and killed groundfish inshore. This argument came to be called “localized depletion”; there might be herring and other fish in waters farther off, but in such scarce supply here that the local food chain has been broken. The notion was once dismissed, but is gathering credibility and used to protect places such as Chesapeake Bay.
“We had an amazing haddock fishery,” Dodge said. “They destroyed the haddock fishery, and the cod fishery and all the other groundfish.”
Also borne out of the long fight was the idea that regulations shouldn’t be developed in silos, fish stock by fish stock. The ecosystem in its entirety had to be considered. Herring, “the staff of the ocean” as Captain Bruce Peters said, fed everything and without them tuna, which many rely on, were either gone or skinny.
“To catch fish you need forage fish,” agreed Our. “My best days were when there were a lot of bait fish around.”
John Pappalardo, head of the Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, took those ideas to his Council peers. These arguments became the basis for the federal changes:
“The Council recommended the midwater trawl restricted area to mitigate potential negative socioeconomic impacts on other user groups resulting from short duration, high volume herring removals by midwater trawl vessels,” read the approval letter signed by Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Greater Atlantic Region. “Because midwater trawl vessels are able to fish offshore, the Council recommended prohibiting them from inshore waters to help ensure herring are available inshore for other users groups and
predators of herring.”
Dodge always argued that midwater trawls was a misnomer. He said the boats used the entire water column and since they had fine mesh they caught everything, an opinion that has been backed up by video of a midwater trawl with striped bass and groundfish discards going overboard.
“They can go anywhere in the ocean. There is no reason to come in here and decimate the place,” said Dodge, who added that midwater trawls had indeed been banned in other countries.
In recent years, many across the Cape joined fishermen in their outcry against the big ships that they could see just off Nauset Beach and other spots. More than 100 residents, organizations such as the Cape Compact of Conservation Trusts, and the entire Massachusetts State House delegation with selectmen from almost every town, spoke in favor of the new regulations. Many argued that the Cape economy relies on its environment and whale watch tour operators and bird watchers were not immune to the herring’s low numbers. Others noted that as mid-water trawlers were scooping up ocean herring they were also taking millions of pounds of their cousins, the river herring that come to our freshwater streams to spawn. Herring counters across the Cape had seen numbers drop precipitously; they now hope for a resurgence.
“This little fish means so much to our community,” said Pappalardo. “People trying to resurrect our herring runs, support historic fishing effort, rebuild the ecosystem, all rallied around this one key step.”
In early December, many of those who helped in the campaign turned up for a celebratory party at the Fishermen’s Alliance in Chatham.
“It’s really an amazement achievement,” said Seth Rolbein, head of the Fisheries Trust. “Herring have been such a central part of the Cape’s story and these protections will help them come back, help protect the Cape’s ecosystem for generations to come. I predict we are going to look back and celebrate that we were able to bring about a change for such a little fish that will make such a big difference. Thanks for supporting us and all that those fish represent.”
Dodge is looking forward to a return of the groundfishery. He is edging into retirement, but he has spent a lifetime helping young fishermen get into commercial fishing and is in the midst of selling two of his businesses. His advocacy on herring, joining many others in meeting room after meeting room, is part of making sure there is a healthy legacy for the next generation.
“It’s been a long battle. It’s a wonderful thing,” Dodge said.