CHATHAM — When it comes to boosting numbers of commercially important fish species – and helping the small-boat fishery that relies on them – the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance is proposing a “no-fish zone” on the backside of the Cape designed to keep herring trawlers out. If it's implemented, the conservation measure could also benefit whales, seabirds and other species that feed on Atlantic herring.
The New England Fishery Management Council is considering changes to its management plan for Atlantic Herring, which includes various alternatives for regulating the herring harvest. Off Cape Cod, herring are harvested in large numbers by mid-water trawlers, which scoop up fish in the middle depths of the ocean. Often working in pairs, these fishing boats typically hail from ports like Gloucester, Portland, and as far south as New Jersey, and are capable of harvesting an entire school of herring at one time.
“They fish all over the place,” said alliance CEO John Pappalardo, who is also a member of the fishery management council. In the fall, the trawlers often work the Gulf of Maine, moving south of the islands in the winter, and off George's Bank in the summer. In the spring and fall, they fish the waters off Cape Cod, targeting Atlantic herring during their migration.
The fishery is subject to an “Acceptable Biological Catch,” or ABC limit, and the council recently debated a series of control rules that determine how many herring should be left in the water. After hearing extensive public comment and debating the various alternatives, the council opted against choosing a preferred control rule, opting to hear more public comment in future hearings.
“We don't have a dedicated herring fishery off the Cape and Islands, but we have a lot of fisheries that are dependent on having herring present,” Pappalardo said. Herring spawn off the Cape, and those egg masses and juvenile fish are eaten by other species, some of which are commercially important. Haddock are present off the Cape at the same time, “and we're able to catch the haddock while they're eating herring spawn,” he said.
Groundfish aren't the only species that eat herring. There's ample evidence that the recreational bluefin tuna fishery has suffered because of dwindling herring stocks.
“As a decline in herring has occurred, the decline in tuna fishing has occurred,” Pappalardo said.
The council recently decided to consider the species' forage value when setting catch limits, and researchers have been studying how much herring is necessary to support birds and marine mammals that feed on them, and then consider how much conservation is needed to keep herring stocks stable well into the future. Pappalardo said the alliance favors this strategy of putting “forage first” when prioritizing herring stocks.
Though a control rule has yet to be chosen, Pappalardo predicted that the council will ultimately choose a compromise rule that is more conservative than before, but not as strong as conservationists would prefer.
“The herring industry will feel less love,” he said. “We'll end up with a rule that's better than the rule we have today.”
The proposal to close new areas to herring fishing are included as several other alternatives to the herring management plan, likely to be reviewed by the council in November or December. The alternative favored by the alliance would prohibit mid-water trawlers from operating in five 30-minute squares east and south of Cape Cod, representing a zone roughly 25 miles offshore. If it favors this approach, the council would decide whether to keep the prohibition in place year-round or for some portion of the year. Similar protections are already in place in waters north of Provincetown.
The “no fish zone” aims to protect herring when they are reproducing, Pappalardo said.
“We create a buffer zone that allows any herring that come inside to stay inside and not be caught,” he said.
Atlantic herring are a different species than river herring, the fish seen in local herring runs in the springtime. But both species often school together, so protecting one also helps the other, Pappalardo said.