CHATHAM — Dozens of fishermen and other citizens spoke out at a public hearing Tuesday night to share a single message with regulators: large herring trawlers need to keep their distance from the Cape, to give key fish stocks – and the people who harvest them – a shot at survival.
The large meeting room at the community center was filled to capacity for the hearing, held by the New England Fishery Management Council’s Atlantic Herring Committee. The group is charged with developing changes to regulations that boost fish stocks to sustainable levels, accounting both for a healthy commercial fishery and the needs of other species, from fish and whales to seabirds, which use herring as forage food. Many of those who spoke are local commercial fishermen, left to target species like dogfish and skate since lucrative groundfish species like cod have all but vanished from local waters.
“The people who are left in it today are the survivors. They’re the damn best at their jobs,” John Our said. Mid-water trawlers are known for scooping up entire schools of herring, along with all sorts of other species in the middle of the water column. Our recalls having landed 10,000 pounds of haddock, and returning to the same spot 48 hours later after herring trawlers had moved through. The area was empty, save for the carcasses of discarded haddock caught inadvertently in the trawlers’ fine mesh nets.
“I’m not trying to put anybody out of business,” Our said. But the damage mid-water trawlers cause to habitat and to the food web is unmistakable. Like others at the meeting, Our favored a year-round ban on trawlers in an area 50 nautical miles off the Cape’s east coast, along with a conservative control rule to govern catch limits.
Delivering a message from the board of selectmen, Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the town has around 200 fishing permits, and the Cape’s off-the-boat commercial fishing catch is valued at about $74 million annually.
“That number is greatly magnified if wholesale, retail and restaurant sales are included as an economic indicator,” she said. “Chatham has the lion’s share of that revenue.”
Orleans Selectmen Chairman Alan McClennen, Jr., said Cape Codders have relied on sea and river herring for hundreds of years, and their depletion threatens the survival of other species.
“Midwater trawlers are breaking our local food web,” he said. The state has strict controls designed to protect river herring, with heavy penalties for taking even a single fish, but when those same species are inadvertently caught along with their cousins, Atlantic herring, industrialized fishing fleets face no such penalty, McClennen said.
A commercial fisherman since the 1950s, Mike Abdow said he remembers seeing large schools of herring. Like other fishermen, he’s been active in lobbying for tougher regulations, without success.
“Why is this not remedied easily? Greed is the biggest factor in the thing,” he said. Trawlers as large as 150 feet are fishing only a few miles from shore, forcing the local day boat fishermen to steam far offshore in their 35-foot boats. “Go out on George’s [Bank] where you belong,” Abdow said.
Don St. Pierre, Chatham’s herring warden for around 50 years, said he has no doubt that the decline in river herring has been linked to big trawlers. In the 1960s, “you used to be able to put your dip net in the water and come up with a full, full net, 24 hours a day,” he said. In one recent year, the local herring count tallied just 78 herring making it up Chatham’s run to Stillwater Pond, St. Pierre said.
“The presence or absence of Atlantic herring plays a vital role in our collective future,” fisherman Nick Muto said. He urged the council to adopt a “risk-averse control rule,” saying previous rules that predicted a 50 percent chance of overfishing “led us to where we are today.
Charlie Dodge, who’s fished from Chatham for 23 years, said midwater trawlers are responsible for huge amounts of bycatch, or species caught inadvertently, and most of those discarded fish die. While his boats hosted federal fisheries observers about 16 percent of the time, big trawlers have observer coverage only about 3 percent of the time.
“This has got to come to an end,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that one group of people can wipe out so many industries.”
Longtime fish buyer Andy Baler said the industry has endured all sorts of cuts designed to help groundfish stocks rebound, and now the quotas are so low that “people can’t afford to fish,” he said. The key to helping stocks recover is to make sure there is adequate bait fish for them. “It’s the food for the fish. And if it’s not available, the stock won’t rebuild,” Baler said.
Commercial fisherman Glen Legeyt thanked the council for holding a rare hearing in Chatham, and encouraged them to adopt strict herring controls.
“If that doesn’t go through, you won’t need to come back in 10 years,” because the fishermen will all be gone, he said.
The council is accepting written comments on the herring plan through Monday, June 25 at 5 p.m.; emailed firstname.lastname@example.org. The full council is expected to vote its preferred option in September, with the rules taking effect next spring.