CHATHAM — The New England Fishery Management Council is holding a rare public hearing in Chatham next week to consider rules designed to protect one of the most important fish species in our waters: Atlantic herring.
The council is mulling a host of options designed to protect sea herring from overfishing by mid-water trawlers, which can scoop up entire schools in a single haul. While local boats do not take part in large-scale herring fisheries, the species is a critical food source for groundfish like cod, haddock and flounder and other species like bluefin tuna.
The hearing is set for Tuesday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at the community center, one of seven sessions being held between Maine and Pennsylvania to consider the proposed rules. Known as Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, the proposals cover two major components: a control rule to govern catch limits and proposed area closures to address localized stock depletion and user conflicts.
The control rule would guide regulators in setting long-term catch limits. Locally, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance has argued in favor of a control rule that focuses not on the commercial value of the sea herring fishery but on the role of the species in the larger ecosystem. Advocates for this approach say it will put a new emphasis on conservation while allowing regulators to consider the biological and ecological requirements of Atlantic herring stocks.
Ten alternatives are being considered for the control rule, encompassing 15 different ways that regulators could evaluate how catch levels affect the ecosystem. Regulators will also need to decide whether the control rule is implemented on a one-year variable basis or every three years with a fixed catch limit.
Much of the attention on Amendment 8 has been on the second component, the nine main alternatives for area closures designed to protect spawning herring. Atlantic herring spawn off the Cape, and their egg masses and juvenile offspring are eaten by other species. Haddock come to the area to feed on young herring, giving local fishermen the chance to catch them.
The Fishermen’s Alliance has argued for the need for a “no-fish zone” to protect herring when they are reproducing from mid-water trawlers. The council will consider a series of maps showing different proposals for closed areas, from a broad swath 50 nautical miles from shore along much of the Northeast coastline to a small six-mile-wide closure area east of Cape Cod running from Monomoy Point to Truro. Regulators will also need to decide the time frames closures would be in effect.
Though they are designed to regulate Atlantic herring, the proposed rules would also offer protection for river herring – the kind seen in local herring runs – which often school with sea herring and are unintentionally caught and discarded by big trawlers. River herring, another important species of bait fish, have been suffering low stock levels in recent years.
The Alliance is encouraging the public to attend the hearing and had planned a presentation at this week’s selectmen’s meeting in Chatham, but that meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum.
Copies of the proposals and other public hearing documents can be downloaded from www.nefmc.org, and public comment on Amendment 8 is being accepted through Monday, June 25. The public is invited to speak at the June 19 hearing, but written comments can also be sent to council Executive Director Tom Nies at email@example.com. Those who cannot attend the June 19 session can take part in a special online hearing on June 20. The webinar starts at 2 p.m., and participants must register online.
After the public hearings have concluded, the council’s herring subcommittee and staff will decide on a recommended alternative for the full council to consider. The body is expected to vote its choice during a meeting in late September in Plymouth.
Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com