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Caution is Warranted in the Herring Fishery

September 24, 2006

Portland Press Herald
Found at: Portland Press Herald

Herring is a humble fish.

Not large or particularly meaty, it’s sought after chiefly as lobster bait or kippered snacks.

But herring is a keystone species in the complicated ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine. It’s avidly consumed by whales, tuna, cod, striped bass and all manner of finned and feathered things. It’s the Purina Chow of the Gulf.

Compared with the never-ending calamity that is the groundfish fishery, herring management has been, relatively speaking, a model of enlightenment.

Managers use an ecosystem-based, precautionary approach with firm catch limits that shut the fishery down when they are reached. There is also a bycatch cap in place that curtails the harvest if too many haddock are caught.

Yet there is growing concern among scientists and fishermen about the long-term sustainability of herring in the inshore Gulf of Maine.

This spring’s surveys showed very few fish. When the data were plugged into a model used to develop scientific recommendations for harvest rates, it suggested herring might not be able to withstand the current take of 60,000 metric tons per year.

Further, a second report that looks at herring in the transboundary area between the United States and Canada also provides evidence that fishermen have been catching too many herring. The Transboundary Resources Assessment Committee Report suggests thatcutting the catch to between 35,000 and 42,000 metric tons would be “more appropriate.”

The Choir Coalition, an industry group comprised of fishermen and whale watch captains, also worries that there aren’t enough herring to provide forage for the many species that depend on it. These observers say that schools of herring just aren’t there.

Unfortunately, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which holds an important seat on the herring oversight committee, is not supporting a reduction in the herring catch to 45,000 metric tons. The agency has been encouraged by a small group of trawler owners who argue the science is “unreliable” and that cutbacks are not warranted.

The fishing community has long complained that the New England Fisheries Management Council doesn’t listen to them.

It’s ironic that now, with the best available science and many fishermen urging caution, managers appear to be heeding those who stand to gain most from overfishing.

On Thursday, the New England council will vote to set the 2007 herring catch.
It would be nice for a change if the council erred on the side of the fish.

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