What do herring mean to the Cape? Council wants to know.

Feb 28, 2024 | Fish Tales

Public comment to protect sea and river herring is needed again on Wednesday, March 27, 6 to 8 p.m. Hampton Inn, 12 Kendall Rae Place, Buzzards Bay.

By Doreen Leggett

With river herring populations rebounding, Harwich selectmen heard a proposal to open that town’s Herring River to harvest.

“This is a legacy,” said Selectman Don Howell, a member of the board when they shut the run down in 2004 because of low numbers. “We are good stewards.”

While the town has done its part, too many river herring heading to runs across the Cape are being caught offshore, beyond the limits of town and state regulations.

Ray Kane, outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, was at the Harwich meeting in early February. He supported Brad Chase from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and Don Yannuzzi, natural resources director in Harwich, in developing a re-opening plan.

“It’s time the citizens of Massachusetts get the opportunity to take river herring,” he said.

But he pointed to the fishing activity of offshore midwater trawlers that put that opportunity in jeopardy:

“You have an industrialized fleet that is allowed to take river herring. The Alliance got the buffer zone, it was overturned by a judge, and we are now working to get the buffer zone reinstated.”

After more than a year of effort by Fishermen’s Alliance staff, commercial fishermen, and others, protections for sea herring and their cousins river herring are back on the table.

The New England Fishery Management Council is developing a regulatory amendment to address area and seasonal allocation and management regarding Atlantic herring to minimize “user conflicts, contribute to optimum yield and support rebuilding of the resource.” The Council is also proposing to take action to enhance river herring and shad avoidance and other catch reduction measures to better support ongoing coastwide restoration efforts for those species.

That amendment is now out for “scoping,” which means the public helps clarify the work and objectives, as well as help develop a range of alternatives.

With herring at only 20 percent of the rebuilding target, comments from the public are essential, said John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the council.

“One way to look at optimum yield is it requires that management measures also account for users of the resource that rely on herring’s availability in the ecosystem – not just how much the midwater trawlers can take without overfishing,” said Pappalardo. “Those users are coastal communities and participants in the coastal economy, in addition to the ecosystem itself.

This includes considerations for opportunities for optimal food production from other commercial fisheries within the seafood industry and opportunities for enhanced recreational opportunities, both of which rely on an adequate biomass of Atlantic herring as forage for their own targeted species,” he continued.

Midwater trawlers are not targeting river herring. They are after sea herring, but invariably the two mix.

In years past, midwater trawlers, sweeping up everything in their paths with nets the size of football fields, caught even more river herring than they did this year. Since the Atlantic herring quota is so low, midwater trawlers hit the cap of river herring, approximately 72,000 pounds, early.

“They just got shut down off the Cape because they caught too much river herring,” said Pappalardo earlier this month.

The mid water trawl problem is something Pappalardo, with commercial fishermen and concerned residents across the Cape, has been trying to address for close to 20 years.

Since herring are a forage fish and food for everything from tuna to terns, when they are gone the ecosystem’s food web fractures and most species leave the area.

One fisherman described it like this:

The midwater fleet descended on the northern end of Stellwagen bank when the Nov. 1 season opened and within six days of fishing legally have turned what was a vibrant area stuffed with fishes of the entire food chain to essentially a wasteland. It is disheartening to see a few  boats have such a dramatically negative impact on a large group of fishermen.

In 2019, with support from every selectboard on the Cape as well as Barnstable County and others, the Fishermen’s Alliance successfully convinced NOAA to put a buffer zone in place that pushed midwater trawlers 20 miles offshore.

Many think a rise in river herring – in Harwich just 10,000 were counted a decade ago, then 291,000 in 2022 and 529,000 last year – is a direct result of those protections now gone.

Pappalardo is looking for protections other New England coastal areas have, including spawning and seasonal closures, “to avoid the problems we have now,” Pappalardo said.

Trawlers could fish farther offshore if a buffer was reinstated but prefer to be close because “they can catch more herring quicker and cheaper,” Pappalardo said.

Having access to the inshore is financially advantageous for midwater trawlers, but it leaves coastal communities in the red.

Upcoming hearings are expected to document how an absence of herring hurts commercial and recreational fishermen across the Cape, as well as ecotourism.

“People should come out and talk about the impact of the midwater trawls,” Pappalardo said. “Talk about the role herring plays in their lives – whether they fish for tuna commercially or striped bass recreationally, or count river herring.

“We have a marine ecosystem under stress right now.”

There is no argument about the decline of herring. The reasons why are disputed.

“Our side thinks it’s because the fishery took too many, too fast,” said Pappalardo. The other side argues herring populations are episodic.

Pappalardo pointed out it took close to 20 years for herring to return after the foreign fleet was pushed out by the Magnuson Stevens Act of 1976. Some argue midwater trawls are just too efficient and the gear should be banned altogether.

Unlike other fisheries, where federal observers monitor catch, midwater trawlers have gone without 50-percent monitoring the council wanted. NOAA Fisheries announced the industry-funded monitoring (IFM) program in the herring fishery was suspended starting April 1, 2023. Additionally, there would no longer be portside sampling.

“That’s the Chevron case,” Pappalardo said, now before the United States Supreme Court and a major test of federal regulatory authority.

Chevron, referred to as Chevron deference, is a 40-year-doctrine that requires courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of laws passed by Congress. Two groups that fish for herring sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing it can’t require them to have or pay for observers.

A lack of observers has made it difficult to document what local fishermen have seen (and some cases filmed): midwater trawls catching pollock, haddock, striped bass and other fish along with herring. Those “bycatch” fish are thrown overboard dead.

Pappalardo said it’s crucial people testify to the economic, ecological, and social value of herring to the Cape.

“If nobody shows at these meetings it will be really hard to do anything,” said Pappalardo.

Public comment to protect the forage fish is needed again on Wednesday, March 27, 6 to 8 p.m. Hampton Inn, 12 Kendall Rae Place, Buzzards Bay.


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