CHOIR: Coalition for the Atlantic Herring Fishery's Orderly, Informed, and Responsible Long-Term Development

Concerns & Goals

For comprehensive discussion of the issues below, as well as anecdotal/scientific evidence, Click here then scroll down

Addressing Inshore Resource Depletion
One of the first goals of CHOIR was the development of a inshore ban on midwater trawling in the Gulf of Maine. This temporal “buffer zone” is critical in order to prevent localized resource depletion of herring and to provide adequate forage for recovering groundfish stocks, large pelagics such as bluefin tuna, and several species of sea birds, mammals and sharks. Herring midwater trawlers would still be allowed to fish in offshore areas during the summer months.

Single and pair midwater trawling by vessels measuring up to 150’ in length, with the capability of holding 1,000,000 of fish per trip, introduce boats that are too efficient and too powerful to be used in coastal waters. The fishing pattern employed by these midwater vessels aims at targeting relatively small fishing grounds with repetitive, overlapping tows until the local supply of herring is exhausted and catch rate is dismal. Forward looking sonar allows the midwater vessels to target the remnants of schools scattered by previous trawl efforts. This fishing pattern is not compatible with other management objectives put forth by the Council to rebuild valuable groundfish resources such as Atlantic cod.

Herring Amendment 1 was developed by the New England Council over a number of years and after numerous meetings and multiple public comment periods. Those affected by the herring midwater trawl fishery off New England came out in force and had a real say in the outcome. In February of 2006, in Portland, Maine, the Council voted 13-2 in favor of Alternative 7 which was the alternative CHOIR and others supported; included in this alternative was an inshore buffer zone (Purse seine/fixed gear only zone), keeping midwater trawlers out of Area 1A in the crucial summer months.

The amendment was then given to NMFS who would have the final say in what the rule would look like. After months of going through the Council’s version, NMFS published a Proposed Rule(PR), which included all but one of the measures within the Council’s final version. After another public comment period in which the public truley made it’s voice heard, the NMFS published the Final Rule(FR)in early March of 2007; as with the PR, the FR included, among other things, an inshore buffer zone in the Gulf of Maine.

This tremendous victory has reinvigorated countless fishermen and others who eagerly await a summer free of midwater and pair trawling in the Gulf of Maine. It should be noted that in the years since the ban went into effect, the tuna fishery (discussed below) and other fisheries impacted by the midwater boats have been improving.

The Costs of Buffer Zones
Establishing a buffer zone imparts a minimal, one-time expenditure for those midwater and pair trawlers in the herring fleet that opt to return to more ecosystem-friendly purse seine gear. Purse seine gear possesses the ability to release herring as well as inadvertently captured bycatch back into the ocean alive. Furthermore, purse seine gear targets only a portion of an assemblage of herring. Success of the gear is shown in its ability to supply an ample amount of herring to support the baiting needs of the lobster industry of New England.

Another reason purse seiner gear is optimal is that, unlike midwater trawling, there are natural limits on fishing effort. A purse seiner is limited by factors such as time of day (always fish at night when herring come off the bottom), the tide, the weather and the behavior of the fish. Midwater and pair trawlers are not limited by any of these factors and are able to fish around the clock in any weather that the inshore Gulf of Maine can throw at them. And because midwater gear can be towed near bottom it poses as a greater threat in terms of interaction with highly regulated groundfish stocks. This aspect of purse seining makes it far more sustainable and much better for the herring and all that rely on it.

Buffer Zones South of the Gulf of Maine
The CHOIR Coalition previously submitted a plan to the Council that would have created coastal buffer zones in which midwater trawling would not have been allowed close to shore. That proposal was later labeled considered but rejected. The CHOIR Coalition still believes the proposal makes sense and will minimize gear conflicts and promote safety at sea.

Observer Coverage and Bycatch

We believe that observer coverage should be maximized on the midwater fleet because of their capacity to incur large amounts of bycatch. The gear is extremely efficient, catching everything in its path, and while captains may make every effort to avoid it, they are capable of major bycatch events. Our groundfish resources are too fragile and important to allow the midwater trawl fleet to operate without the scrutiny and security of a strong and adequate observer program, especially as most directed groundfish boats sit at the dock, unable to fish these same areas.

As a result of the concerns of the public and fishery managers, the Council began work on a new amendment to the herring plan to design and implement a comprehensive monitoring program in the herring fishery in 2008. The amendment, known as Amendment 5, is still being developed and has a lot of potential to address the lack of monitoring in the fishery. CHOIR developed a monitoring proposal that was accepted by the Council. This comprehensive plan is focused on the idea of maximized retention, similar to a system in place on the West Coast, but has many different facets that can be used by the Council to develop its eventual monitoring system.

Click here to see the CHOIR Proposal

For discussion of bycatch in the trawl fleet, as well as evidence, Click here Then scroll down to Section 5 at the bottom of the page.

Whiting-silver hake-bycatch dumped by midwater trawler

Additionally, the Council should put in place bycatch caps to control the bycatch mortality of the midwater trawl fleet on other important target species such as cod, whiting, striped bass, and tuna. Bycatch caps are essential to ensuring the groundfish community that the small haddock that represent the future of the fishery are not wastefully discarded. (A cap was put in place via Groundfish Frawework 43, although as discussed below, there are concerns about whether the catch is being accounted for properly.)

Midwater trawling in Groundfish Closed Areas

One part of the monitoring issue is the levels of bycatch in areas that are closed to groundfishing. These Groundfish Closed Areas were implemented to help rebuild groundfish stocks and have had a big impact on the groundfish fleets. While these boats can gain some access to these areas in order to catch certain species, they must conduct comprehensive studies during which they must prove that they can fish in these areas cleanly.

Midwater trawlers, on the other hand, were given access to these same areas based on tiny amounts of sampling. Eventhough these “midwater” trawlers can fish anywhere in the water column-including within feet of bottom- and are more than caoable of catching regulated groundfish stocks, they have been fishing in these areas while groundfish boats sit tied to the dock.

Some headway has been made on this issue, though, and just recently NMFS implemented a new rule that requires midwater trawlers to carry 100% observer coverage in Closed Area 1, one of the closed areas near Georges Bank. This rule also attempts to prohibit dumping of catch before it is accounted for by an observer. This rule was developed in large part due to high levels of haddock bycatch seen in the Fall of 2008. While it is a step in the right direction, many groundfishermen would like to see similar rules put in place in other areas that are closed to them. It completely jeopardizes the groundfish rebuilding efforts if these large boats are catching high levels of bycatch and so they need to show they can fish cleanly if they are going to fish these areas.

Midwater Trawling and Tuna
Localized herring resource depletion has had a profoundly negative impact on fisheries for giant bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Maine, including a dramatic drop in the quality and fat content of fish caught during the months of August and September. A study by the University of New Hampshire Large Pelagic Lab examined nearly 4,000 tuna product gradings that have occurred since the transition of the herring fishery from purse seine to midwater gear. Results documented that poor quality bluefin increased from 9% of the fish in 1991 to 76% of fish in 2004. In the absence of herring on tuna fishing grounds, tuna must expend more energy to find a lower abundance of prey, producing a net loss of energy that manifests as poor fat content and subsequently lower values on the domestic and international sashimi markets.

Bluefin Tuna Not As Healthy As Before…

The tuna fishery has been devastated by herring midwater trawlers and pair trawlers that have decimated all of the historic feeding grounds that were able to attract and hold tuna from June through October. Since miwater and pair trawlers showed up, the traditional tuna fishery has declined each year. At the same time, just across the border, parts of Canada have been seeing more tuna than ever. The tuna have been driven out of US waters and into Canadian waters, where midwater trawling is not allowed. This is only natural as these fish can swim hundreds of miles in a day or two and will not hesitate to move from the Gulf of Maine into Canadian waters in order to find the food they need.

Midwater trawling has displaced the bluefin and the creation of inshore buffer zones free of midwater trawling is essential if this important bluefin fishery will regain its strength.

As discussed above, Herring Amendment 1 created a summer buffer zone in Area 1A, banning midwater trawling from June through September, in 2006. Over the past few summers, the removal of the midwater trawlers has led to the tuna fishery recovery. Catches have begun to increase each year and while not back to where they were, they are on their way. This not only speaks to the benefits of the new rule, but to the problems caused by midwater trawlers during the late nineties and early 2000s.

Reporting of catch

The reporting system in place in the herring fishery is inadequate. The system relies on estimates of catch and not actual weighing. Any system based on estimates is likely going to be inaccurate; and, with such a high volume fishery, miscalculations can mean massive overages.

CHOIR feels that a weighmaster system should be put in place so that the landings can be properly accounted for. This weighmaster would observe any offloading and would allow for a more accurate reporting system that would in turn give managers the ability to manage the fishery properly.

Amendment 5 is attempting to address this issue, which gives hope that the problem will be fixed in the near future.

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Last updated: December 7, 2009

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