Herring proposal disapproved

Herring proposal disapproved

By Doug Fraser
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July 25, 2013

CHATHAM – Until last week, many local fishermen thought the herring problem had been solved.
After nearly a decade of a hard-fought grassroots campaign to have fishery managers more closely monitor herring – a keystone species in the food chain – there was a plan.

The proposal, developed last year by the New England Fishery Management Council, was to have all Atlantic herring trips by large vessels covered by federal observers who would note what was being caught and what was being thrown back.

But last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service disapproved the 100-percent observer coverage requirement as well as two other measures considered by advocates to be vital to protecting herring stocks: a requirement that fish dealers weigh the catch and not use estimates based on volume or other methods, and a limit on the number of times herring fishermen could invoke an emergency clause and dump fish in their nets without them being counted by an observer.

"They basically approved nothing," said a frustrated and angry John Pappalardo, the CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance and a former member and onetime chairman of the New England council.

"They kicked the can down the road," said Chatham fisherman John Our after returning Tuesday from a day's fishing for skates and dogfish.

Atlantic and river herring consume plankton and, in turn, are the proteins that predator species like cod, bluefin tuna, and whales depend on.

Cape fishermen suspect that the disappearance of many of the valuable commercial fish species from local waters may have something to do with the relatively recent technique of pair trawling for Atlantic herring, where twinned vessels tow a large net between them capable of catching hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish per tow. There's no herring, fishermen say, to attract predator fish close to Cape shores.

Fishermen also say the decline in river herring that return to the Cape's rivers and streams each spring to spawn coincided with the debut of the pair trawling technique in 2005.

When the monitoring proposal was rejected, local fishermen were particularly galled at the NMFS contention that the agency couldn't afford observers for the barely two dozen boats in the midwater herring fleet.

NMFS estimated in 2010 that it cost $918 per day for observer coverage.

Dogfish and skate fisheries, for example, catch very little else and have no need to be monitored, fishermen said. Bycatch is so low, in fact, the fleet recently received an exemption from carrying observers when catching dogfish and will be seeking one for skates as well.

"It's a total waste of money," said Chatham fisherman Jan Margeson. "Our thought they should take the money used to monitor their fleet and put it into herring observers.

NMFS spokeswoman Teri Frady said the money to pay for observers in one fishery cannot easily be transferred because there are scientific objectives tied to a certain level of observer coverage. Around 40 percent of trips by large herring vessels carried an observer, and between 4 and 8 percent of groundfish vessels in 2011, according to NMFS data.

In disapproving the new measures, NMFS said the agency hadn't yet developed a legal way to split the cost of paying for total observer coverage between the herring industry and the agency, as proposed in the amendment.

And, budget concerns made it cost-prohibitive to hire additional observers. Agency officials also had concerns about how to apply the proposed limit on dumping fish.

Pappalardo said the fisheries council and the fishing industry had been misled by the fisheries service and that the federal agency had an obligation to work to resolve differences rather than disapprove them.

"They (NMFS) knew the council wanted a high rate, if not 100 percent, observer coverage. ... And, they also knew there was a high level of concern by the public and council about dumping fish at sea unobserved," Pappalardo said. "All the while, to have the (National Marine Fisheries) Service present at all of the meetings, and to have them not say a thing and reject the entire section because they can't figure out how to make it work is so disingenuous as to be willful ignorance."

New England Council fishery analyst and herring plan coordinator Lori Steele said she was surprised that NMFS rejected the measures, saying there seemed to be communication.

"We have correspondence from the service where they expressed concern about these measures, but we thought we addressed it and apparently we didn't," Steele said.

Steele wasn't sure what the next step was in the process but NMFS has said it will continue to work with the council to find a funding solution for observer coverage.

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