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Herring and their predators reoccupying Area 1A after trawler ban
August 18, 2007
From the mid to early nineties, until last year, the buildup of the herring midwater trawl fleet had left the Gulf of Maine lifeless. While the traditional purse seine and fixed gear fisheries had always coexisted with the many fisheries and industries that relied on healthy herring stocks, the midwater trawl fleet had shown itself to be incapable of such coexistence. Never before has this been more obvious than this summer: the newly enacted Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only Zone (aka Buffer Zone) in the inshore Gulf of Maine (‘Area 1A’), and the absence of midwater trawlers, has brought the life back almost over night. Tuna, whales, birds, groundfish, porpoise and everything else that relies on herring are back. In the minds of most fishermen in this region, there is no denying why.
On June 1st if this year, a new rule went into effect which bans midwater trawling for herring in Area 1A, which stretches from Cape Cod Bay all the way to Eastport, Maine. This area, which is the mainstay of most of the fishing and other ocean industries in northern New England, had seen a massive increase in midwater trawling over the last 10 years. Thousands of fishermen, whale watchers, and concerned citizens fought hard for the Buffer Zone, believing that the cause of the decline in their fisheries and industries was the midwater trawl fleet. The New England Fishery Management Council, and then NMFS, approved the new rules last year and to the delight of thousands of people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, the rules finally went in place this summer
For almost ten years, it was all but impossible to find herring on important pieces of bottom like Jeffrey’s Ledge and Platts Bank during the summer months. Midwater trawlers were able to systematically wipe out the large schools of herring by the end of June each summer. One would have been lucky, very lucky, to see any herring on their sounder in the wake of the midwater trawl fleet.
But as was expected by countless fishermen, the Buffer Zone has brought the herring back. More importantly, the damaging fishing patterns of the midwater trawlers, and their ability to break up the herring schools, are no longer.
From June 1st until now, there has been herring on most major pieces of bottom. Large schools can be seen both on top of grounds and in the deep water, even during the daytime. If one stays out until dark they are able to see large schools coming off bottom, something we had not seen in almost a decade.
Glenn Robbins, herring seiner (F/V Western Sea) said, “Things are looking great out there. The big schools of herring are showing up for the first time in years. Without the midwater trawlers, the fish are able to school without being broken up. We are really seeing a lot of fish. We knew things would be better but it is nice to see it happen nonetheless. There are a lot of whales and birds, as well.” And most importantly, the predators that eat the herring are back as well.
More than any other fishery, the bluefin tuna fishery had suffered greatly over the past ten years due to midwater trawling. Bluefin tuna, which migrate great distances to come to the Gulf of Maine to gorge on herring, had been driven away because there simply was not enough to eat. Catches of bluefin were inversely proportionate to the rise in effort in the midwater trawl fleet.
Each and every year for ten years, less and less tuna were showing up; those that were showing up were leaving earlier and earlier to move into Canadian waters, where rules banning midwater trawling inshore had left plentiful amounts of herring and other forage.
As the Canadian tuna fishery grew, the New England fishery declined, no doubt because of the lack of food here. Furthermore, thoese tuna that were staying were declining in quality and fat content. A decades-long study showed this fact with shocking clarity. (That study was done by Bob Campbell at the Yankee Fishermens Coop in Seabrook NH. It was conducted with researchers at UNH. More about this study can be found at the following links: CFN Morning Sentinel
But within weeks of the Buffer Zone being enacted, large schools of bluefin tuna were being seen from Massachusetts Bay all the way to Down East Maine. Harpoon vessels out of southern Maine were chasing dozens of large schools of giant fish, as early as the first week of June, and in areas that tuna had not been seen since before the midwater trawlers arrived. While bad weather has hurt the harpoon fleet, the bluefin are still around in large numbers.
Tuna fisherman Steve Weiner said, “We are seeing a lot of tuna this summer. We saw more tuna in one afternoon in the first week of June than we saw in the last 5 years combined. As of the last week of July (when this was written), the fish are still around. We had not seen tuna here this late since before midwater trawlers arrived ten years ago and there is no doubt as to why.”
Tuna are not the only fish benefiting from the Buffer Zone. Groundfish fishermen from up and down the coast have been reporting great improvements thus far.
Glen Libby, groundfish fishermen out of Port Clyde Maine, said in June that “everything seems to be on the right track. We have been catching haddock and cod in places inshore where have not seen fish in years. Things are looking much better.”
Craig Pendleton, groundfish fisherman from Saco, confirmed what Glen said. They were seeing fish inshore in places they had not seen them in years.
The Buffer Zone is enabling groundfish to find food and also to avoid being taken as bycatch. For many years, groundfish fishermen from all over New England were concerned that midwater trawlers, towing large nets on bottom in closed groundfish areas, were decimating the stocks, and this season is proving them right.
Dolphins, Whales, birds
One of the most devastating signs of the damage done by midwater trawlers over the past decade was the complete absence of dolphin. Well known as some of the most able creatures at finding food, for years no dolphin were seen in the Gulf of Maine, other than a handful of stragglers once and awhile. This summer, the dolphins are back in force. Tuna fishermen are seeing hundreds, possibly thousands, everyday they get out. The return of the dolphin has left many optimistic that the Gulf of Maine is finally on the rebound.
Not only dolphin, but also whales of all kinds have returned. Fin, Humpback and Minke whales have been seen in the hundreds. Whales are being seen in places that they had always been before midwater trawlers arrived in the nineties. And finally, shearwaters, fulmars, storm petrels and gannets have returned in great numbers- a sure sign of the tuna and other animals that the birds follow as they migrate into this area.
Only a start
Despite the improvement, though, all is not well, at least not yet. In comparison to the last few years, things are looking great; but we are not out of the woods yet. Many believe that the summer ban on midwater trawling is a great start, but that the presence of midwater trawlers after October 1st will not allow for the full recovery to take place. Importantly, the midwater trawlers will be arriving back at about the same time as the height of the herring spawning season. Many fishermen believe that effort on spawning fish has caused great, long-term damage that will only recover if midwater trawling is banned year round.
Moreover, many groundfish fishermen, while pleased with the results of the Buffer Zone thus far, worry that the pressure the midwater boats put on the cod and other groundfish in the Fall and Spring is too much for the stocks to handle.
The improvement seen with the Buffer Zone in place gives a great deal of confidence and hope to the many fishermen and others who suffered the last decade; but we are not out of the woods yet, and more action will be needed if this part of the ocean will ever get back to where it was before midwater trawlers arrived just over a decade ago.
Chris Weiner is a tuna fisherman from Portland, ME