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Local fishermen assail lax herring oversight

Cape Cod Times
October 5, 2010, by Doug Frasier

Cape Cod fishermen are among those counting on regulators to rein in ships capable of catching a million pounds of herring in a single tow, fearing that overfishing the species could unhinge the inshore ecosystem.

Last week, just as the New England Fishery Management Council was preparing to meet in Rhode Island to consider a series of measures that some believe would increase monitoring of the Atlantic sea herring fishery, it was announced that the herring fleet had overrun its quota in the area off Cape Cod by 40 percent. The fleet caught 3.7 million pounds above the amount allowed in just a few days.

"It's outrageous. It highlights that management, including the monitoring, is a joke," said Tom Rudolph, herring campaign director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.

In a press release from the association, Chatham fisherman John Our said Cape fishermen are not allowed to go over their allowed amounts by even a single pound without being shut down.

"Those boats went over by more pounds of herring than the weight of all fish Chatham boats caught last year," Our said.

On the docket at the fishery management council meeting last week was a measure championed by local fishermen requiring 100 percent of all herring trips be covered by a federal fisheries observer who would estimate both the amounts of sea herring as well as other species caught by each vessel as they are being landed.

"We're just as unhappy about it as they are," said Mary Beth Nickell-Tooley, a New England fish council member who also has served as executive director of the East Coast Pelagic Association, representing 17 herring vessels from New Jersey to Maine.

Tooley said the quota for that area was so small relative to the fishing power of the vessels that they went over without knowing it. Tooley said that herring fishermen want increased observer coverage but disagree that they should have to pay for it.

In addition to 100 percent monitoring, Cape fishermen had asked the council to better protect herring spawning areas and groundfish-closed areas.

The council last week postponed its decision on the new regulations, known as Amendment 5.

River herring numbers have plummeted since 1969 when domestic and international fleets caught a combined 140 million pounds. Since 2000, landings have dropped below 2 million pounds, with a historic low of 206,000 pounds in 2006.

Neglected fish runs, onshore development, increased predation by a resurgent striped bass population and overfishing all played a role in the decline.

But Our say a knottier problem jeopardizes the rebuilding of what was once the East Coast's most abundant and lucrative fishery. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic shift in the size and fishing power of herring trawlers operating off the coastline. Seeking greater efficiency, fishermen tow large nets between a pair of vessels, a practice that now catches 65 percent of the annual herring landings.

Many are concerned that these trawlers may be wiping out most, if not all, of the fish that return to a particular run.

Last month a group of recreational and commercial fishermen from Wareham and Martha's Vineyard sued the federal government and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for not protecting and rebuilding river herring.

Local fishermen are also concerned about the bycatch of commercial species like cod, haddock and tuna that are caught with the sea herring, particularly since these trawlers are allowed into areas that have been closed since the 1990s to help rebuild those species.

Herring are a vital link in the food chain, converting the food energy in plankton to protein that is consumed by numerous species. Fishermen are worried that intense fishing as close as three miles from the Cape shoreline may be wiping out herring stocks that are the prey of important commercial fish stocks

Tooley said there is still a lot of scientific uncertainty about herring population numbers, but there is general agreement that they have been stable for the past few years. A new comprehensive assessment is scheduled to take place in 2012.