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Lack of midwater trawls helps New England stocks
August 03, 2008
Just over a year ago, the herring purse seine/fixed gear only rule went into place in the inshore Gulf of Maine, prohibiting “midwater” trawing for herring from June through October. I can say without a doubt that in my 30+ years of commercial fishing I have never seen a rule do so much good in such a time. The rule has brought back to life the valuable inshore grounds and the fisheries that rely on them.
Just a couple years ago, my boats were struggling to catch daily limits. This year they are catching their limits in under an hour! The same goes for the rest of the fleet here. We are seeing more cod and other groundfish on places like the Middle Bank (Stellwagen), Jeffreys, Tillies, Platts, and all the other historical inshore grounds that we have always relied on so much. It has never been so obvious how damaging the herring trawlers were to the groundfish stocks in New England.
Herring trawlers have both direct and indirect (negative) impacts on groundfish. The direct affect is a lot of bycatch. This is because the name “midwater” trawler is completely inaccurate: it is very well known that these so-called “midwater” trawlers are quite capable of fishing anywhere in the water column. They will put the net where the herring is and because herring spend much of the day on bottom, their nets are often within feet of bottom. They are also using some of the smallest cod-end mesh on the planet. While I and other groundfish fishermen are using 12” mesh (industry recommended, too) these massive trawlers are using 1” mesh! And on top of that, they can also tow it in closed groundfish areas!
The result, not surprisingly, is that these boats were responsible for a lot of groundfish mortality. While some in the herring trawler lobby try to say otherwise, it is physically impossible for boats this big to tow nets this large, with such small mesh, near bottom, in groundfish hot spots, without catching groundfish!
But the indirect impacts were just as detrimental. These boats were able to wipe out the herring stocks inshore in a matter of years. For years the herring fishery was made up of purse seiners, stop-seiners, and weir fisherman and it coexisted alongside all of the other fisheries without a problem. But as soon as the large herring trawlers began showing up in the early nineties, things took a nosedive. By 2005, it was not uncommon to see small pieces of bottom covered by 12-16 of the big pair trawlers, working the area round the clock.
It was no surprise that, before long, we were seeing no herring in most of the historic areas. Nor was it a surprise when, as a result of this depletion, we were seeing less groundfish than ever before. Despite years of rebuilding, mesh-size increases, and countless cuts and closures, the stocks were getting worse. The problem was not simply that they could remove too much herring, too fast, but that they were able to disperse anything that they did not remove.
This year, without the herring trawlers, we are seeing not only more herring, but more pogies, whiting and mackerel as well. While herring was the most devastated by these trawlers, all the forage stocks were suffering. We are now seeing more forage than since before these boats arrived. As a result, the groundfish are finally coming back, and along with them, the industry that relies on them. I have not seen such the fleet so lively and optimistic since before the herring trawlers showed up.
And it was not just groundfish boats suffering as a result of the herring trawlers: the herring boats killed our tuna fishery, as well. The tuna, which come here solely to eat, were not finding enough herring and were moving onto greener pastures earlier and earlier each summer. By 2005, many were bypassing this area altogether. The few being caught, like the cod, were of terrible quality. There simply was not enough to eat and the industry barely made it through.
But right now, as a result of the new rule, there are big tuna stretched from Cape Cod to Down East Maine. We are seeing the big schools of big tuna, and we are seeing them stick around because there is enough forage around to hold them. For the first time in a long time the fish are staying in US waters and it is no doubt why! Anyone who doubted the fact that the herring trawlers ruined the tuna fishery should see what is out their right now- it has never been so clear that they were the problem.
And what about lobster bait? The trawler lobby tried to make everyone believe that they were necessary to supply bait but, according to a recent letter written by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, those fears were unfounded. According to the MLA, “The lobster industry had concerns that banning midwater trawl gear could negatively impact bait supply. However, we found that the purse seine fleet was very capable of providing a steady supply of bait over the course of the fishing season. In fact, when the midwater trawl ban was lifted, the remainder of the herring quota was immediately caught flooding the market with bait. This experience has given us confidence that purse seine gear is not only better for the herring resource and ecosystem, but it also avoids the potential bait shortages during the peak fall lobster fishing season.” It should be no wonder, given that before the early nineties, the traditional herring fleet was always able to supply bait without any help from trawlers.
I could keep going on about all the improvements we have seen over the last but in the interests of space I will just say this: the ban on herring trawling inshore has led to improvements across the board. Never before has it been so obvious that these trawlers were causing serious problems. We always knew they were bad but after seeing the rapid improvements since the Purse Seine/Fixed Gear Only rule went into place last summer, the full extent of the damage is being seen.
The removal of the herring trawlers has given our industry a chance to survive, and for that we are all very grateful. It did not come a moment too soon. The trawler lobby has talked about trying to get back in, hopefully that never happens. And hopefully the fact that NMFS helped fund the trawler buildup does not affect the agency’s decision making. These boats should never be allowed back inshore! Poor decisions in the past should not justify more poor decisions today!