Working to resurrect a buffer zone for herring

Jan 25, 2023 | Over the Bar

Over the Bar

Christopher Seufert photo

By John Pappalardo

One of my most frustrating moments in many years working on fisheries issues arrived a few months ago, when a federal judge overturned a hard-fought reform that would have kept giant mid-water trawlers out of local waters, allowing herring and other crucial forage fish to return, school, and rebuild.

The New England Fishery Management Council, after more than a decade of debate, passed the new buffer zone with support from Maine to Rhode Island. The Department of Commerce agreed, and implemented. Independent fishermen up and down the coast, many of whom testified in favor of this essential step, celebrated a big win and almost immediately began to see results; more small fish, more big fish in pursuit, hope for a more robust, reviving ecosystem.

The trawlers appealed.

A federal judge didn’t say the goals of the new rules were wrong on the merits – that would have been impossible. He said that the rationale to support them, particularly the concept called “localized depletion,” was more anecdotal than scientific, and therefore didn’t pass muster.

That ruling dismissed the best wisdom of many fishermen, ignored the best judgement of many managers and scientists, and defied common sense. But it wasn’t arbitrary and capricious, as they say in the legal world. In my opinion it revealed one judge’s ignorance of the ocean’s interconnected vitality, but it was based on a narrow judicial analysis of a filing. Because of that, it included the suggestion that if people want to do this, they need to go back and strengthen the evidence or justification supporting a buffer zone.

And so, bitterly disappointed, back we went to the New England council.

Every year the council votes on priorities for the coming year, a ranking of issues that face fisheries. This is important because it becomes the template used by staff to focus effort; there are so many areas that could be addressed, research to conduct, recommendations to move forward, that prioritizing becomes crucial.

Would the council, of which I’m a member, be willing to put a new buffer zone back to the top of the list? Would we signal we are willing to go through the arduous process yet again, adjust proposed rules and build new justifications that try to address the judge’s concerns? Head back into communities up and down the coast for public hearings all over again? Take another formal vote on a proposal? Send it to Washington for review and hopefully approval yet again? Implement it – knowing that the small group of mid-water trawlers will most likely hire high-powered counsel to appeal yet again too?

Last month we got the answer:

Yes – to take the first step and prioritize, anyway.

This is a win, but only procedural. Without this vote, buffer zone effort would have been buried for at least another year. With it, we start down a road we have traveled before, so hopefully we can avoid detours and get to the destination without another roadblock.

We’ll see. In the meantime, we’re seeing something else:

Midwater trawlers are back, scouring our back shore, devastating the nearby ecosystem, likely to ravage the river herring population that many of our towns hope to see returning to herring runs come spring.

To many who have witnessed their return, and talked to me about it, their presence seems to represent something else vertical; middle fingers gesturing to our community.

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




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