Thursday, September 27, 2018
A SMALL STEP FORWARD IN FORAGE FISH MANAGEMENT
Earlier this week, the New England Fishery Management Council adopted measures to protect Atlantic herring, arguably the most important forage fish in the northeast. In doing so, they pushed aside objections from the industrial fishing fleet, and edged toward a future in which fishery managers consider ecosystem impacts when adopting management measures.
Atlantic herring haven’t been doing too well. In recent years, recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has fallen to historic lows. In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently cut the 2018 annual harvest limit by 55%, in order to prevent the stock from becoming overfished.
At the same time, Atlantic herring have been subject to harvest by an industrial fleet of mid-water trawlers which, as reported in the Providence [Rhode Island] Journal,
“tow huge nets and can quickly scoop up millions of pounds of the fish, causing, according to environmentalists, and others, the depletion of its population in small areas. The trawlers have been active in the herring fishery for the last two decades or so and are the most efficient vessels at catching the fish.”
It is not unusual for two such midwater trawl vessels to work together and pull a single net, known as a “pair trawl,” that is far larger and more efficient than the nets that individual vessels can employ. The impact of the pair trawlers on the Atlantic herring fishing has been significant. As the Pew Environment Group noted in one report,
“In 1995, pair trawlers landed approximately two million pounds of herring; by 2004 that number had climbed to more than 127 million pounds.”
Since then, the Atlantic herring population has declined, and catch has declined along with it. The commercial harvest limit for 2018, which includes all regions and all types of gear, is just 49,900 metric tons, or about 110 million pounds.
Many New England fishermen have long blamed the pair trawlers for not only the decline in Atlantic herring, but also for a local decline in the number of fish that regularly feed on herring. As the [Martha’s] Vineyard Gazette reported,
“For years large factory fishing boats with nets larger than the size of football fields, have worked the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, off Rhode Island and all around Cape Cod in pursuit of the forage fish, Atlantic herring…”
It noted that the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Association put out a press release that read, in part,
“New England fishermen believe that the herring fishery has had cascading detrimental effects on many other species of fish such as depleted cod, juvenile haddock, bluefin tuna and striped bass. The fishery removes large quantities of herring, the primary food source for these species, and…it kills these species when they are caught accidentally as bycatch.”
Conservation advocates describe the problem as “localized depletion,” with the Conservation Law Foundation explaining that
“’Localized depletion’ refers to a situation where concentrated fishing—in this case by midwater trawlers—takes too many fish out of too small an area in too short a time. It has biological impacts when it affects the normal age structure (removing too many older, fertile fish) or the genetic diversity (losing a genetically distinct sub-population) of a species. It has ecological impacts when it wipes out all the prey for a dependent predator and that predator leaves the area. And it has economic impacts when other fisheries, such as commercial fishing for cod or recreational fishing for striped bass, as well as eco-tourism businesses like whale watching, are forced to move.”
To avoid such adverse effects, fishermen and other conservation-oriented interests have argued that Atlantic herring should be managed, in part, based on their importance to the ecosystem, and not just for their commercial value. Wild Oceans, an advocate for such ecosystem-baseed management, said in an op-ed in Sport Fishing magazine that
“Raising our standards for conserving key prey species means changing our management goal from maximizing yields for commercial fisheries to sharing the resource, in a way that accounts for the vital ecological role of these species as forage for natural predators, while still providing reasonable fishing opportunities.”
However, representatives of the industrial fishing fleet categorically reject such an approach. The Providence Journal reported that
“Commercial fishing groups say that herring are being caught at sustainable levels and argue against the ecosystem approach, which would ensure that a larger share of the population remains in the water for other animals to prey on. They say the system needs flexibility to react to dips and spikes in the herring population.
“’Localized depletion of herring has never been documented. Herring, and the species that feed on them, are both highly migratory, and travel over a wide range. Any potential impact from the herring fishery would be limited in duration,’ the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, which includes Rhode Island-based Seafreeze and The Town Dock, said in a statement.
“…Maghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze, said in written comments to the New England Fishery Management Council that there is no scientific basis for [excluding pair trawlers from inshore waters].”
“The New England Fisheries Management Council approved a rule that ‘establishes a long-term policy that will guide the council in setting catch limits into the future’ at a meeting in Plymouth [Massachusetts].
“Such an option will result in more herring being left in the water ‘to serve as forage and be part of the overall ecosystem,’ according to the council. Under that proposal, catch limits can be adjusted based on new information.
“Additionally, the council approved a measure aimed at preventing midwater trawlers from fishing too close to shore for herring. The boats are banned from fishing within 12 miles of shore, an area stretching from the Canadian border through Rhode Island, that includes areas east and southeast of Cape Cod, according to the council.”
It’s good news, but it doesn’t mean that the herring are home free. Although the New England Council approved the measures, the National Marine Fisheries Service must also approve them before such measures are included in fisheries regulations. And there will undoubtedly voices out there trying to convince NMFS to reject the Council’s decision.
According to the Globe,
“Shaun Gehan, counsel for Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, a group of harvesters and processors from North Carolina to Maine that includes three companies in Gloucester [Massachusetts], had a different take.
“The council’s decisions, he said, would ‘make it very, very difficult to catch even the low amounts of herring that are going to be allocated for the next three years.’ The measures are going to hurt lobstermen, and commercial fishermen who catch herring and mackerel, he said. The region’s lobster fishery chiefly uses herring as bait.
“’What the council did today is inconsistent with law,’ he said.”
Thus, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the industrial fishing fleet lobbied NMFS, and the Commerce Department, and urged them to reject the New England Council’s proposed management measures. And it also wouldn’t come as a surprise if the same Commerce Department that allowed New Jersey to go out of compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s summer flounder management plan in 2017, and agreed to illegally reopen the recreational red snapper season in the Gulf of Mexico at about the same time, would again turn its back on conservation considerations and support the industrial fleet.
Even if NMFS does ultimately endorse the New England Council’s recommendation, there is the chance that the mid-water trawlers could challenge NFMFS’ decision in court, an action that, even if unsuccessful, would discourage other regional fishery management councils from beginning their journeys toward ecosystem-based management until any such lawsuit was ultimately decided.
But even with those uncertainties, conservationists should view this week’s actions on Atlantic herring as a victory. As Peter Baker of the Pew Charitable Trusts said, the New England Council should pride itself on
“being among the first to follow a public, science-based process with concrete actions to conserve forage fish.”
Baker went on to say that
“Protecting these sensitive areas and the from intensive fishing and rebuilding the herring population will directly benefit marine wildlife and the coastal businesses that depend upon them.”
Yes, it’s true that the 12-mile-wide coastal buffer zone, that excluded mid-water trawls from inshore waters, wasn’t nearly as large as the 25- and 50-mile-wide buffers that were also considered, and ultimately rejected, by the Council.
Thus, the Council’s recommended measures represented a relatively small step forward, compared to the greater strides that had been proposed.
But as anyone who has engaged in the fisheries arena will be quick to tell you, taking even a small step forward is far, far better than just standing still.