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Haddock Bycatch by Herring Trawlers Traps Fisheries Managers
September 01, 2004
The bycatch of juvenile haddock by the herring mid-water trawlers shouldn’t be a surprise.
As early as 1996, fishermen and environmentalists raised concerns about possible bycatch of groundfish by mid-water trawlers.
By 1998, fishermen’s reports of juvenile haddock bycatch were so compelling they spurred me into starting a herring sampling experiment. As a Greenpeace Fisheries and Oceans Campaigner at the time, I began buying totes of mid-water trawl caught herring to see these boats’ catches for myself. I reported my partial findings to the New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) Groundfish Committee chair in a letter on February 10, 1999 stating that “Based on random sampling of bait boxes purchased at different times from different dealers, we have found mixed in with the herring: mackerel; haddock; cod; dogfish; whiting; and, pollock.”
Concurrently, my Greenpeace colleagues and I were investigating the impacts of mid-water trawlers globally. Our findings were added to the body of evidence submitted to the fisheries managers in support of more proactive measures to be included in the first ever herring Fishery Management Plan (FMP).
But Greenpeace and the fishermen’s concerns were lost amidst fishy politics.
Herring History 101
From the early days of attending NEFMC meetings, fishermen repeatedly told me they warned fisheries managers for years about certain issues to no avail. At first I took these testimonials with a grain of salt.
Having witnessed the process surrounding the development of the herring FMP, I am convinced that if it weren’t for fishy politics, many problems facing fisheries today could have been avoided if such early warnings were heeded.
In case of the herring FMP politics kept from being heard the collective, repeated cries of those trying to prevent predictable issues such as groundfish bycatch before they became a problem.
I should know.
The herring fishery caught my eye when I first started working on fisheries ten years ago.
Herring stocks had collapsed and the Georges Bank fishery shut down in 1978 following years of fishing by the international industrial mid-water trawl fleet.
In 1994, fisheries managers where declaring a massive recovery of the herring stocks and advertising “historically robust” populations ready to be fished. But the fisheries managers’ promise of abundance wasn’t sitting well with me and conversations with fishermen confirmed my fears.
To allay my concerns, I began participating in discussions leading up to the adoption of the herring FMP with NMFS, the New England & Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Councils, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), and both branches of the U.S. Congress.
The paper trail of these discussions shows that despite the early warnings by fishermen, environmental groups, its own staff, and the PDT, the NEFMC failed to incorporate measures in their final recommendations to address bycatch of groundfish by the mid-water trawls.
In fact, by the time the herring FMP was approved by NMFS, it lacked measures to prevent many problems fishermen and environmentalists feared would come with the introduction of industrial mid-water and pair trawlers in the herring fishery.
Between 1998 and 2000, the groundfish bycatch issue finally made it on the Council and ASMFC’s agendas were it was discussed repeatedly. Public testimony on the subject by concerned fishermen is detailed in many NEFMC documents from that period.
In April 1999, following consultation with other regions such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) where mid-water trawling for small pelagic had occurred for decades, the NEFMC’s Plan Development Team (PDT) concluded that “the PDT is searching for published reports on mid-water trawl gear performance to determine if there are modifications that will reduce the possibility of catching groundfish.”
The PDT went on to say that despite management restrictions, the NPFMC had concluded that “one still needs to recognize that pelagic gear can fish on the bottom,” and that “…technology has improved to the extent that pelagic gear (equipped with very large mesh) can now be fished so the gear remains in contact with the bottom.”
Concurrently, the NEFMC staff advised the Herring Oversight Committee that “current mid-water trawl gear can be fished on or close to the bottom. This is true even in fisheries such as the North Pacific pollock fishery, which has explicit regulations on gear construction intended to prevent fishing on the bottom. Available observer data, however, does not show a significant groundfish bycatch in mid-water trawls.”
The paper trail also shows the groundfish bycatch problem could have been avoided before the mid-water trawl fleet established a strong foothold in the herring and mackerel fisheries.
Solving the problem today means battling with those who spent million retrofitting their boats or bringing their already existing boats from other regions of the country to fish for herring.
One Boat’s Bycatch Is Another’s Real Catch
The ocean is a fish-eat-fish world. Haddock, cod, whales, seabirds, harbor porpoises, and many other species are known to eat fish such as herring as part of their diet.
Globally, fishing for small prey fish by mid-water trawlers has been on the rise. As fish further up on the food chain are further regulated, these small fish available in large schools offer the industrial mid-water trawlers the last sources for large amounts of fish they need to fill their holds possibly depriving their predators of the abundance they need to reach and/or maintain healthy populations.
To protect herring predators’ dietary needs as well as prevent their bycatch by the mid-water trawl fleet, repeated recommendations were made to the various management and political bodies during the herring FMP’s development. Solutions offered by fishermen and environmental groups were ignored.
Fisheries managers, claiming “historically robust” herring populations, persisted no other measure than setting a total catch limit for the entire fleet was necessary.
This single species, myopic approach to dealing with fisheries is one of the main reasons fisheries around the world are in a constant state of crisis.
Getting Out of the Haddock Pickle
It’s not too late for fisheries managers to fix the herring fishery’s problems.
If the groundfish protection rules and the commitment to prevent another blow to the region’s fishing communities are to be taken seriously, the NMFS and NEFMC should:
Fisheries managers goofed when they didn’t address these issues during the development of the herring FMP. They can redeem themselves by amending the FMP to include more thoughtful, ecosystem-based, precautionary plans that protect the herring and all the animals that interact with and eat this fish – including haddock.