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


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Prey For All

August 12, 2009

Fishermen’s Voice
Letter to the Editor
August 2009

It is really amazing the difference a couple years can make. Just 3 years ago, you could barely find a big bluefin in the Gulf of Maine. The rise in the midwater trawl fishery for herring had just about put us out of business. As most of your readers probably know, bluefin come here for one thing: food. They migrate all over the Atlantic and come back here to gorge on herring and mackerel and other forage that was always abundant opff our coast. So when the midwater trawl fishery ramped up and there was hardly any bait around, it should have been no surprise that the tuna also stopped coming here.

But this summer things have looked like they had 10 years ago before the bait problems began. This is the third summer of the Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only rule that prohibits midwater trawling in the inshore Gulf of Maine (Area 1A) from June 1st through September 31st. By 2006, when the herring fishery was fully dominated by pair trawling, the whole region was a dead zone, devoid of life. These boats would move from one area to another, hammering the bait and they drove the tuna right out of here. That is why so many fishermen fought so hard to get those boats out during the summer. While all of us knew the changes would be good, we never expected things to look this good this fast.

The tuna showed up early and the harpoon fishery had its best start in years. The fish have been thick ever since and the harpooners have been doing well despite the fact that we have had the worst weather in June and July that anyone has ever seen. The fact that they have caught so many fish (quota is over half caught) with the weather we have had speaks to how many fish are around. The reason is obvious: food.

And there are not only a lot of fish around, but there are more big ones than we have seen in quite a long time. When the bait got scarce, the big fish were the first ones to leave since they require the most food. Towards the end of the time before the Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only Rule, you could barely find a fish that was over 80 inches. But this summer there have been big numbers of fish from 80-105 inches. There are also acres of fish in the 40-70 inch range- not big enough to keep in the commercial fishery, but a great sign for the future. But it is the return of the bigger size fish that is most encouraging. To see them back is a great thing.

Some tried to say that tuna populations were down and that was why we were not catching our fish, but those people were wrong. Had they looked at Canada’s fishery over the last 5 years, they would have seen that tuna numbers in this part of the ocean were OK. The problem was there was nothing to keep them in our side of the Gulf of Maine and they all left to Canadian waters where bait was more prevalent. Just look at the numbers of fish we have here now that there is enough food if you don’t believe me.

As someone who fishes with a hook for these fish (as well has harpooning), I am looking forward to the rest of the season. The hook fishery usually gets going later in the summer than the harpoon fishery. For whatever reason, the fish seem to bite better as the season goes on. As I write this, we are getting close to the time when the fish start to bite and so we are all excited to start catching some fish. In fact, this week the trollers have been having some luck off Maine and so hopefully this is a sign of things to come. While the dogfish problem is still a big one, we are hopeful that we will be able to catch some fish regardless of the huge numbers of that problem species.

While I won’t go into too much, I want to point out that this is not just a tuna thing. The groundfish fishermen and the whale watches have been struggling as bad as the tuna fishermen in years past because of the lack of bait. And like us, they have seen enormous benefits from the seasonal ban on midwater trawling. Any groundfish fishermen or whale watch captain could tell you that things were horrible just a few summers ago but now have started to look more like they should. There is just a lot of life around. The Gulf of Maine is alive again.

Steve McNally
Amesbury, MA

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