Ravaging of the river herring population by midwater trawlers and an absence of round-the-clock environmental police protection were the hot topics at a meeting between Cape and Islands Rep. Tim Madden and members of the newly formed Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen’s Association Friday.
The group, made up of career fishermen and Island town leaders, was fresh from a key victory at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council earlier in the week in Portland, Me. The council voted last Thursday to adopt a new management scheme which grants the Vineyard its own sector, a designation that proponents believe affords fishermen far greater control over their livelihood.
However they were smarting about getting the brush-off on another issue they believe is scuppering New England river herring — the lightly monitored, heavy fishing midwater trawlers at work in the Gulf of Maine.
Midwater trawlers are permitted to catch herring, which they fish in massive numbers, herding entire schools into their nets. The boats use an array of electronics, including sonar and underwater cameras to catch whole schools of fish.
The trawlers also are granted leeway through a federal Special Access Program, as part of an effort to curb the practice of bottom trawling. Mid-water trawlers use nets that do not drag the bottom — a practice which causes extensive ocean bed damage.
But the boats present two problems for small fishermen, the first being by-catch, incidentally caught fish of different species.
The boats are blamed for several by-catch incidents, including, last summer, an incident in which hundreds of thousands of pounds of dead bass were thrown back into the water. A group of fishermen posted footage online of the dead bass, sparking outrage in the fishing community.
And a lack of regulatory oversight on the boats means that there is no policing of what mandatory measures there are to limit bycatch.
A receptive Mr. Madden was short on promises for action Friday on the trawler issue, which straddles two jurisdictions both beyond his reach — the fishing takes place in federal waters and processing takes place in factories outside the Cape and Islands.
Group member Warren Doty agreed that it was politically thorny, noting that the New England council had purposefully deferred a vote on the question, applying sterner monitoring rules on the trawlers with little discussion.
Meanwhile it’s a unifying issue for fishermen known to differ on many matters.
“The thing I like about it is everyone can get behind it; you can’t find one fisherman arguing with another fisherman,” Mr. Doty said.
Yet he said there is no consensus at the state level.
“Our [herring] runs are empty and it didn’t just happen to us,” said Mr. Doty. “The state says, oh the bass ate them all, or — no, no, it’s the water. It’s ridiculous but this is what they say.”
Group member Buddy Vanderhoop, a longtime manager of the Aquinnah herring run, emphasized the importance of the herring to the overall health of the fish population.
“Everything eats herring, we’re losing the base of the food chain. And monitoring is at best five per cent and regardless there’s no way they can know whether they’re getting river or sea herring. These boats are doing a lot of damage and they’re not being monitored,” said Mr. Vanderhoop.
“This is the absolute opposite of local fishing. It’s industrialized fishing,” Mr. Doty continued. “It’s big boats with just four or five men on board pumping fish out. They’re ground up as fish meal or for fertilizer. They’re wrung out for the oil.”
Mr. Vanderhoop agreed. “It’s ruining our ocean is what it’s doing,” he said. “They vacuum everything into their hold and they’ve wiped out most of the herring runs in New England.”
Group member Dennis Jason, who is the Chilmark harbor master, suggested lobbying to put area restrictions on the place, but was downbeat about the practicality of regulating the boats.
“Trying to monitor the trawlers is almost an impossibility. They’re catching 100,000 to 200,000 pounds — bigger than this room, you can’t pick through that. It’s poor fishery and it should be stopped,” he said.
“Shut the plant down and end the problem,” said Mr. Vanderhoop.
“If they’re fishing in federal waters I don’t think there’s a huge likelihood of shutting them down,” said Mr. Madden.
He said a key factor is education.
“I would say 99.5 per cent of the population doesn’t know this is happening,” he said. “What we need to do is lobby. Send a letter to [Cong. William] Delahunt. Lots of smart people are already on this but it hasn’t done much. However, the federal government’s been taking on fishing . . . .”
Mr. Jason continued: “They’re taking millions of pounds at a time between them, each year.”
Also on the agenda was a call for improved policing of Island fishing rules.
“We need someone here 24/7. People get away with murder,” said Mr. Vanderhoop.
He said a group of fishermen have been recently operating on the Island catching undersized bass, filleting them on shore and taking them off-Island for sale, all before off-Island enforcement might be able to intervene.
“Matter of factly, they pulled a knife on a couple of fishermen a few nights back when they tried to tell them they were doing something wrong,” Mr. Vanderhoop.
The newly appointed — and appropriately named — environmental officer for the region, Matthew Bass, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mr. Madden suggested contacting Island state police to help look out for environmental concerns as an interim measure. Once someone pulls a knife, he added, any police will do.