To protect herring, we’re back in the regulatory weeds

Jul 26, 2023 | Over the Bar


over the bar

By John Pappalardo

When a single federal judge overturned and blocked years of work by many in this community (as well as allies up and down the coast) to stop mid-water trawling near our coast so we can help revive historic herring stocks and runs, it was a body blow. But we promised we’d get off the ropes and into the middle of the ring for another round.

Here we are.

The first jab was to make sure the New England Fishery Management Council gave this issue real priority once again, and wouldn’t give up. That meant creating a “problem statement” that would guide federal management to come up with new strategies to get this done.

On June 29, the council did just that by a 13-4 vote. Of course I was one of the 13.

My high school English teacher wouldn’t approve of the run-on sentence, but the statement gets to the point:

“The purpose of this action is to develop and implement management actions designed to attain optimum yield and improve the conservation status of Atlantic herring by accounting for its critically important role as a forage species in the ecosystem and minimizing user conflicts created by competing interests on the herring resource between the directed herring fishery and other important user groups including commercial and recreational fisheries, whale watching, and tourism.”

Translation: Let’s find a way to do what needs to be done and make sure we’re bulletproof if there is another federal court challenge.

The problem last time was with the rationale the Council adopted, a step required for any new regulation, to justify banning mid-water trawling within 12 miles of the coast from Maine to Rhode Island – with an even bigger “bump-out” 20 miles off the Cape. The judge ruled that this one rationale for the whole Northeast, which focused in part on the concept of “localized depletion,” was too vague and broad, without enough hard science to justify pushing these boats away from our coast.

That ruling disregarded a lot of evidence, and a lot of testimony from fishermen and others about how wiping out herring disrupted ecosystems, local and otherwise, including herring runs.

To say it’s unfortunate that we have to go through this all over again is an understatement, but we do.

So the proposal I hope I can convince the Council to adopt is for a new set of rationales that are honed to each of three main management areas off our New England coast – breaking a common problem into three sections. Specific evidence and nuance for each should justify in strict legal terms what anyone who knows these waters and the amazing offshore web already understands: Wiping out herring drives off everything from whales and tuna to any foraging fish, and breaks the global chain for shad and river herring that should fill our streams every spring.

We’ll work with NOAA staff to draft these new rationales and justify new protections, though no doubt the scientific and political work will be slower than I’d like, and cover a lot of ground we’ve covered before. We hope to have an update by September.

Meanwhile, just to add to the frustration, the herring stock assessments are so bad that a federal disaster has been declared for the fishery. One consequence is that mid-water trawlers who in my opinion created this disaster now qualify for millions of dollars in federal relief, while closures and very low quota levels will knock down effort even without the ban we need.

I have nothing civil to say about this turn of events except, “Insult to injury.”

(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)


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