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Captain of Bunny Clark discusses the midwater trawl issue

February 02, 2005

Bunny Clark Herring Page
By Captain Tim Tower
Found at: Bunny Clark

At 7:00 PM, I met representatives from all the industry user groups for a meeting on how New England is going to eliminate the dirtiest fishery that has ever graced our waters, namely the herring mid-water trawling industry. Midwater trawlers drag huge nets behind the boat (sometimes in tandem-with two boats towing a net that is larger than a single boat can haul). These nets have small mesh and will catch anything in it’s path. The industry representatives at the meeting included herring seiners, tuna fishermen, recreational anglers, party/charter boats, hook (longline) fishermen, lobstermen, groundfishermen, whale watch groups, the Coastal Conservation Association and conservation groups (including the Conservation Law Foundation and Oceana). This is the first time I have seen so many groups of varied fishery related interests in the same room working together for the same goals. Our concern is that these herring trawlers are catching up the herring at an alarming rate and, in effect, are moving those fish that depend on herring as a food source out of the reach of every user group that is left along the coast. Not only that, but in so doing, the mid-water boats (most of which are over 100 feet long and as much as 150 feet long) are also catching everything else that feeds on the herring. These are some things that have been happening in this mid-water trawler herring fishery:

*Since the mid-water trawlers showed up on Jeffrey’s Ledge in 1991, the herring populations have declined at an alarming rate. Where before one could tell when they were on Jeffrey’s by the enormous schools of herring found there, now, you are lucky to find a school of herring at all and, when you do, it’s big news. Of course, Jeffrey’s Ledge, as most of you know, is a closed area for commercial groundfish boats, a protected area so groundfish can live, grow and multiply with limited harvest. If there are no herring there, obviously, the fish will move where there are herring or where they can eat. This makes the idea of a groundfish protected area moot and moves these groundfish into areas that are commercially fished on a regular basis. Indeed, our tuna fishery almost ceased to exist in New England last season (a first-the tuna fishermen-the General Tuna Category specifically-never met the governments quota for total catch! This is the second year in a row that the tuna seiners and harpoon tuna boats did not meet their quota!), most of the tuna caught were found in Canadian waters where they have a sustainable fishery on herring (purse seine only).

*The bycatch (other organisms that are caught with the herring) is huge. Tons of groundfish including haddock, cod and pollock have been caught with the herring. There were so many small haddock landed on so many occasions, lobstermen became used to seeing haddock in the barrels of herring bought to be used for lobster bait – I know, I was one of them. It was less than ten years ago that we (party boats) started to see the return of haddock to our waters. Can we allow these boats to undermine the haddock recovery efforts at this time? Can we afford it? No, we can’t. Since the mid-water trawlers showed up in 1991, the numbers of small juvenile pollock have declined on Jeffreys Ledge. Large numbers of seals, some porpoises and a few whales have been killed in the process of catching herring by these boats. They caught so many dogfish (a Federally protected species of small shark) during the summer of 2004 that they had to hire lobster boats and the like to haul off large quantities of these fish to dump them. Federal enforcement doesn’t know about this (or is turning a blind eye) even though it is common knowledge up and down the coast. Where there hasn’t been a whiting fishery for years (whiting populations have declined to an unfishable level), whale watch boats are reporting seeing acres of dead whiting floating on the surface during the time that the mid-trawlers are working the area. When mid-water trawlers felt free to talk on the radio, I overheard trawler captains talking about ripping the belly out of their nets. The reason; these boats were towing so close to the bottom (where the groundfish and herring were) that they were catching their gear on unknown wrecks lying on the bottom! Indeed, last season, some of these boats were seen using eighteen inch rollers. You don’t use rollers on dragging gear unless you are working the bottom.

*There was talk around the table last night that of the herring that are caught and landed, this only represents about half of the herring killed. The reason for this is that regulations and market value prohibits landing herring in certain biological stages. In better times, I have heard these boats on the radio (again) talking about dumping a load of fish (tons of herring) because they were too small and had no market value. Every fish that is caught in the process is killed whether they are used or discarded. These herring don’t go back alive. Tons of herring are dumped because they are “feedy”, or the organisms that the herring are feeding on cause them to spoil too quickly so they shouldn’t be taken. Herring are routinely dumped because they are in spawning condition. The law doesn’t permit the taking of these fish. If caught, they are also dumped and killed. Such a waste.

*Lobstermen have lost a lot of lobster traps, warps and buoys to these mid-water trawlers without being compensated. These trawlers will tow at night in areas close to shore where the lobstermen are fishing and run over set after set of gear. Lobster trap buoys don’t show up on radar. When these traps are cut, they fish and potentially kill a lot of lobsters before the vents erode and drop out allowing lobsters to escape. Many lobsters will die as they are also cannibalistic. Left too long in the traps together, they will eat each other to survive. Also, wolffish will go into the traps after the lobsters, eat them and then die themselves because they too can’t get out of the trap.

*Government scientists tell us that there are plenty of herring left, diametrically opposing the views of every fisherman I know (except the mid-water trawler boys). And yet, in the last two years the Total Allowable Catch (TAC-the poundage of herring that can be harvested by law within a year) has been reduced from over 180,000 metric tons (a metric ton is approximately 2200 pounds), to 150,000 metric tons. It may be interesting to note that this mid-water trawler fleet has never reached a TAC of 150,000 metric tons of saleable herring. The key word here is saleable as you know that many more herring are killed than are counted. Last season they reached 92 metric tons. They peaked at about 120,000 metric tons in 2000 and possibly 2001 (I believe that more boats got into the fishery during those years) and it has declined every year after.

*Observer coverage is scant. These trawlers are left to roam the ocean anywhere they want. Although there has been a call to have people aboard to monitor the activities of these boats (observers), the Federal government has only funded enough money to give us about 12 percent coverage and that has only happened recently. Of those observers, few are trained well enough to report what is really going on and none have been given the guidance to report the most significant facts. Face it, where are you going to find a person that is aware of all the little things that belong or don’t belong in a fishery. Most observers don’t have the time on the ocean it takes to know what to look for. In the end, the captain is going to couch the trip any way he sees fit in self preservation, with regard to the weather or concerning what is best for business.

The solution: We don’t want to end the herring fishery. Herring are a viable source of protein, the best lobster bait and, fished correctly, a sustainable fishery that a fisherman should be able to make a living at. To this end, herring have been caught with seines for years without hurting the population and this is the way it should go. It is not necessary to cut back on the TAC if mid-water trawlers were prohibited from fishing. Seining is a clean fishery: bycatch is released to go back alive, unwanted herring (after or before close inspection) can be released alive if unwanted (it’s in the herring fisherman’s best interest anyway), seiners don’t catch groundfish with some minor exceptions (and those fish can be released alive as well) and there is no gear conflict between the seiners and other user groups (fishermen).

What can we do about this problem? I don’t know other than writing your Senators and Congressmen. When I come up with the best idea, I will put it on this page. Until then, know that we have a serious problem here that directly effects catching groundfish in New England. And remember, it’s not just groundfish. It’s tuna, it’s other fish that eat herring, it’s lobster bait, etc. etc. We need a sustainable fishery for herring. The mid-water trawling for herring is not such an industry.

Something else to think about: If the mid-water boats were to be stopped today, would there still be enough herring for a guy to make a living from seining? I’m not sure. If the mid-water trawling keeps going at this pace, there will come a time in the near future when no one will be able to catch a significant enough amount of herring from seining. I believe this. Unfortunately, we may get to this point.

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