Herring fishermen affected by section closures say it's not scientifically sound
Glenn Lawrence, owner of the herring transport vessel, Double Eagle, said politics and money supersede science when dealing with the health of fishery stocks in New England.
Lawrence, a bait supplier based in Rockland, said his customers are out of bait Downeast because spawning closures have forced his team out of the area to fish west of Cape Elizabeth.
Wharfs in the area that get bait from purse seine boats said they have been buying other species for bait, like pogies. Danny Wilshire of Bramhall's Wharf in Friendship said most fishermen prefer pogies as decent herring is difficult to get.
"We got herring the other day and it was like pudding," he said.
Wilshire attributes poor bait quality to transporting the bait long distances because of the closures.
The Downeast fishing section re-opened Thursday, Sept. 20. The western section is closed Sept. 8 to Oct. 5.
The problem, Lawrence said, is that the western open area is teeming with spawning fish. "I don't know where they get their numbers," he said of scientists designating where and when to close areas.
"We don't want to catch spawning herring, it's not good. It's our future — our garden," he said.
Matthew Cieri, a biologist with the Department of Marine Resources said closures in a given area are based on a pre-determined spawning condition of Atlantic herring indicated by commercial catch samples. When areas lack commercial samples of adult sized fish, those areas close on pre-specified dates.
There are three separate spawning areas in the Gulf of Maine which protect regional aggregations. The areas are closely monitored by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council Technical Committee, said Terry Stockwell, New England fishery management councilor and director of external affairs for the Department of Marine Resources.
He added that Atlantic herring management and science is complicated as it's jointly managed by the New England Fisheries Management Council and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council.
The closures do not affect mid-water trawlers because those vessels are not allowed to fish inshore, the area is also known as A1, from June 1 to Oct. 1.
Mid-water trawlers deploy a large net to catch schools of fish that become trapped in the brailer, a narrow section of the net.
Purse seine fishing uses a large wall of netting to encircle schools of fish and draw the bottom of the net closed to capture the fish.
Lawrence's colleague, Glenn Robbins — a purse seine fisherman and owner of Western Sea, based in Rockland — said regulations should be changed to allow fishing in all areas with a 20 percent tolerance instead of a zero percent tolerance and designated fishing grounds. He said the area open now is full of spawning fish and believes it hasn't been closed to mitigate complaints if all sections were closed.
Cieri said he doesn't have an opinion on the 20 percent tolerance concept.
Sections are closed between three weeks and a month to allow the herring to spawn without disruption.
"It's not the way to do it," Robbins said, of how to ensure a sustainable fishery.
"The ASMFC Atlantic Herring Section voted to change the spawning tolerance to zero and Maine was the only state that did not support this action. Maine has made several attempts to revisit the tolerance and each has failed, Stockwell said.
Robbins suggested Maine manage its own fishery, citing the fact that out-of-state vessels that catch herring are trawlers — not purse seiners — and their regulatory and environmental concerns are not similar.
The trawlers are allowed to fish year-round for herring, while seiners' seasons begin in early June and end around the third week in October, or once the quota is caught.
Stockwell said current Atlantic herring fisheries management plans have pros and cons. He added that if Maine decided to manage the fishery separately, "federally permitted vessels would still be bound by New England Fisheries Management Council regulations and the ASMFC would vote Maine out of compliance resulting in the Secretary of Commerce prohibiting the transfer of Atlantic herring across Maine state borders."
Cieri said quotas and allocations among areas and seasons are complex. "The federal government controls the quotas by area and have divided it by season," he said.
Robbins said if trawlers were totally barred from fishing inshore, then seiners could have a longer season, supplying fresh bait to lobster fishermen into January. He added that seiners only fish in the Gulf of Maine. Trawlers fish from Maine down to New Jersey, Robbins said.
Cieri said many trawlers are home ported in Maine and fish in Maine. He added that seiners have permits, fish, and land in states to the south regularly.
"Some of the seiners have the ability to work as trawlers while those that normally fish as trawlers can and do fish as seiners. Most vessels have a federal permit and are subject to federal rules even when operating in state waters," he said.
Robbins said trawlers are mostly out of state vessels. Trawlers are not allowed to fish inshore until Oct. 1, when they fish with purse seiners until the 25,000 metric ton quota is caught. By that time period, trawlers already met a 30,000 metric ton quota offshore on George's Bank, he said.
Cieri said seiners and trawlers share the same quotas and the total limit is set yearly by the federal government. "Effectively the mish-mash of sub allocations gives a set aside to purse seiners, fixed gear, and bottom trawls from June to September (generally 72 percent of the quota in the inshore area). The remaining amount — 28 percent— is available for all the gear types to harvest after Oct 1."
Robbins said trawlers are ecologically destructive — ripping up lobster pots, gill nets and producing high volumes of by-catch.
Younger generations involved in the herring fishery are concerned about their future in the business, said Lawrence.
Stockwell said a peer reviewed bench mark assessment recently concluded Atlantic herring is not overfished and there is no overfishing occurring. He said the biomass is growing, but numbers are still below historic levels. "Consequently it is expected that there will be a modest increase of available quota for the next three year specifications," he said.
Amendment 5, a federal action that will affect all federal permit holders, will implement a comprehensive monitoring program including 100 percent observer coverage on herring fishing vessels and will include provisions to reduce river herring bycatch and a catch cap.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com