I recently wrote a letter to a fishing industry electronic news outlet and was asked by The Herring Alliance to elaborate on that letter to provide a little more background on this for interested parties. For instance, you may wonder why herring vessels fishing up in the water column with gear that isn’t supposed to catch groundfish are even allowed to take haddock. It’s a longer story, so let me provide some history.
In 1994, nearly all fishing was banned from waters identified as part of an important plan to aid the recovery of overfished groundfish stocks, such as haddock, cod and flounder. One of the few successes in New England’s groundfish fishery is the rebuilding of haddock, and it was achieved through the sacrifice of groundfishermen, including those from Cape Cod, who have strived for conservation. These areas remain closed to groundfishermen unless they are fishing in one of a few tightly controlled opportunities to enter the areas called Special Access Programs. And in order to establish one of these special fisheries, groundfishermen must conduct rigorous scientific experiments in which they first fish in the area with 100% observer coverage with 100% of the catch inspected and demonstrate that access is appropriate. CCCHFA fishermen did just that between 2003 and 2005, conducting almost 150 research trips in order to establish one Special Access Program.
While herring trawlers were also initially banned from fishing in these groundfish closed areas, in 1998 federal regulators re-opened them to these vessels, who claimed their fishing gear would not catch groundfish. It was largely this belief that was used to justify this change, as data was unbelievably scant: 13 tows, also known as hauls, half of which were from another fishery entirely, and none of which appear to be in the actual areas in question. Contrast that with the 147 trips comprising 640 hauls and over 600,000 hooks, in all months that were required of CCCHFA just for one small part of one closed area.
However, in 2004, two industrial trawlers were documented with 46,000 pounds of juvenile haddock and other groundfish bycatch. This prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to issue an emergency action to establish a bycatch cap on haddock for herring trawl.
Current regulations allow herring trawlers to land haddock without restriction until a total of 0.2 percent of the total U.S. haddock annual catch limit has been detected in the herring fishery, equal to about 200,000 pounds of haddock this year. It is important to realize that this number rises and falls in sync with the haddock resource and the amount of haddock available to groundfishermen. While less may be available to herring vessels than in prior years, that’s simply because the haddock population has gone down, as has the haddock catch allotted to groundfishermen. Also important is that this haddock allotment gets taken out of what groundfishermen can bring to port for sale as food for consumers.
What this year’s monitoring data is showing is that herring trawlers have had observed haddock catches totaling 80 percent of its annual limit of haddock. The fleet has until April to catch the remaining 20 percent.
Back to November’s Council meeting:
The herring industry requested an emergency increase in their haddock allocation, claiming that the cap on haddock restricts their ability to fish for herring. In a positive move, the New England Fishery Management Council did not decide that this was an emergency, but did vote to consider, at some point in 2011, changing the regulations for the herring industry’s haddock bycatch cap.
We believe that the limit is functioning as it should: as a last backstop to make sure that the herring fishery does not take too much haddock. Because other tools are supposed to minimize haddock bycatch to levels that don’t even approach the cap. First and foremost, midwater trawl gear is not supposed to catch groundfish, which live on and near the seafloor, at all because it is supposedly fished much higher up in the water column. In fact when haddock bycatch was first revealed, debunking herring industry claims that they were incapable of catching groundfish, they quickly shifted gears and claimed it was due to unprecedented “eruptions” of juvenile haddock off the seafloor associated with unusually large “baby-boom” haddock year classes. The baby boom was more than seven years ago so it’s unclear why haddock bycatch is still a problem. Second, the herring trawlers often tout their voluntary avoidance programs when it comes to bycatch issues, usually claiming there is no need for pesky regulations, and haddock is no exception. So it is unclear to us why all these other control systems have failed, and to us it is clear the backstop must be maintained. To use a sports analogy, moving a backstop is very risky business for the folks in the first 10 rows.
We believe that the Council and NMFS should take steps to reduce haddock bycatch, not bump the cap up and thereby increase the bycatch. Simple, common-sense solutions are called for, like rescinding access to the groundfish closed areas where most of the problem is taking place. Also, the Council and NMFS should prohibit midwater trawl gear from contacting or even coming near the bottom once and for all. It is time to end the myth of “midwater trawling” as practiced in New England. Groundfishermen know the problem is that this gear is being fished hard to the bottom. There are now effective technological solutions to monitor and enforce such a prohibition, like this program in New Zealand. Responsible midwater trawl fishermen should welcome these solutions, because they claim a few bad apples are causing the problem. If that’s the case, this should level the playing field.
So, to summarize: First, the herring trawlers said they did not catch groundfish. Then, they requested a bycatch allocation because they did indeed catch haddock, but claimed it was a temporary problem with juveniles. Now, the industry says they’re still catching so many that it is an emergency and that they should be allowed to catch more. This is a slippery slope and we should hold the line and take steps to reduce their interaction with groundfish.
Your voice can help let the council know that increasing haddock bycatch for the industrial herring fleet is not a good choice for New England’s ecosystem, or for the groundfishermen that bring us haddock for our dinner plates. You can learn more on our herring campaign website.
Tom Rudolph is the Herring Campaign Operations Director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.