In an effort to cut down on the accidental harvesting of river herring and other fish, local fishing authorities ruled this week that all fishing boats targeting Atlantic herring must have impartial observers onboard and will be required to file more detailed reports of their activities. The program will take effect beginning next year.
The decision came after years of discussion and debate, said Pat Fiorelli, spokesman for the New England Fishery Management Council, which finalized its ruling on Wednesday. “People have finally come together, including the herring fishermen,” Ms. Fiorelli said. “This process has been a long time in development and it has been controversial.”
The ruling is welcome news for local fishermen. For years large factory fishing boats with nets larger than the size of football fields, have worked the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, off Rhode Island and all around Cape Cod in pursuit of the forage fish, Atlantic herring. Conservation groups, recreational and commercial fishermen have long charged that those midwater trawlers inadvertently scoop up a variety of fish, including river herring, and are catching far more than what they report.
The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Association described the decision as “momentous.”
“New England fishermen believe that the herring fishery has had cascading detrimental effects on many other species of fish such as depleted cod, juvenile haddock, bluefin tuna and striped bass,” the association said in a press release. “The fishery removes large quantities of herring, the primary food source for these species, and...it kills these species when they are caught accidentally as bycatch.”
Buddy Vanderhoop, a charter fisherman from Aquinnah, a long-time advocate of protecting river herring, welcomes the changes. “I have been crying for them to complete Amendment 5 for years. They have been getting away with murder for nine years,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
Mr. Vanderhoop says he has observed large draggers working the waters as close as 20 miles to the Vineyard. This past winter most of these fishing boats were farther west, not far from Block Island and fishing in federal waters south of Rhode Island.
Atlantic herring are not in serious trouble, but river herring—which are known to swim in the same schools along with the larger Atlantic herring—are considered a troubled fish. They are an anadromous fish that spawns in local freshwater ponds. Atlantic herring are spawned and live their whole lives in the open ocean. River herring migrate into freshwater streams and ponds to spawn.
Wednesday’s decision, made at a meeting in Portland, encouraged Atlantic herring fishermen to take any necessary measures to avoid catching river herring in their nets and landing them on the deck.
Mr. Vanderhoop, along with his brother Brian, have worked the Aquinnah herring run for many years. When the fish was abundant, each spring river herring would migrate into local waters. He could count on harvesting barrels of herring from the run, as the fish swam from Menemsha Pond upstream into Squibnocket Pond. Usually less than a foot in length, they spend most of their adult lives in the open ocean. But each spring the adults migrate back to the place where they began life to spawn, usually a still freshwater pond. The fish would then mature in the coastal waters and then head out to sea.
For the last five years there has been a moratorium on the catching of river herring in state waters, because the numbers dropped so precipitously. This spring, the fisheries managers who monitor the stock saw an improvement in the numbers of adults that returned to state herring runs. There are also herring runs at Lagoon Pond, Lake Tashmoo, a small one in Sengekontacket and one at Mattakesett.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) oversees the herring run on their property in Aquinnah. It is the longest continuously run on the Vineyard. Bret Stearns, natural resource director, said “the tribe is concerned. Herring is part of their history. They’ve been using herring since before recorded history. Any measures that are taken to insure the future of this important fishery is going to be well-received.”
Mr. Stearns said in the last 10 years he and others have observed a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish going up the run in the spring.
Mr. Vanderhoop, who is a member of the tribe, said he used to derive a significant amount of money from being able to harvest herring at the run. First there was the decline, and then the state imposed a moratorium on the harvesting of herring in state waters.
“It has been troubling to me,” said Warren Doty, president of the Martha’s Vineyard Dukes County Fishermen Association. “No one is allowed to catch river herring. Yet, these big industrial fishing boats, working offshore, are allowed to have a bycatch. They are catching thousands of pounds and we here on the Vineyard catch zero.”
For years, those in the Atlantic herring industry have said it wasn’t their fishing boats responsible for the decline of the river herring. Now, Ms. Fiorelli said, “People have finally come together, including the herring fishermen. The herring fishermen are anxious to have their fleet monitored in order to refute the allegations that have been made by various groups,” she said.
There will also be a bycatch limit. Ms. Fiorelli said the industry, along with the council’s support, will adopt a new monitoring program so that whenever a fishing boat does inadvertently encounter a large school of river herring that a warning be sent out to other fishermen. This system has come out of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, School of Marine Science and Technology. It is a voluntary system that is already working well in the sea scallop fishery, where fishermen will contact each other if they accidentally run into another troubled fish, yellowtail flounder.
There are still details to work out in the adoption of the ruling, called Amendment 5, before adoption, but it is clearly a significant step, Ms. Fiorelli said. “It has taken years for people to come into agreement. Even among the council members themselves, it has been a struggle. There were so many affected parties. There was bickering and fighting and finally they came to an agreement on how to move forward,” Ms. Fiorelli said.
Peter Baker, director of the Northeast Fisheries Program, with Pew Environmental Group, has been running what is called the Atlantic Herring Campaign. He was relieved by the Wednesday decision. “This is something that the commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and whale watchers have wanted for years,” Mr. Baker said.
“They made good decisions yesterday and it should have a significant impact,” Mr. Baker said.