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Herring: A small fish that is a big deal
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In the News

Herring: A small fish that is a big deal

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Herring“The bean of coffee, the leaves of tea, the spices of the tropics, the worms that make silk, are of smaller influence on the nations (sic) richness than the herring of the Atlantic Ocean.”

So wrote the French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède more than two centuries ago. Times have changed since early American settlers first plucked the small silver fish from the waters of the Gulf of Maine. The herring’s importance, however, hasn’t diminished. “For a small fish,” noted Peter Baker, project manager of the Pew Environment Group’s Herring Alliance, “herring are a really big deal.”

The Gulf of Maine herring fishery is coming under scrutiny this year. Last fall, the Herring Alliance—a coalition of environmental groups and some fishermen—ran a campaign urging New England residents to voice their concerns about the fishery, such as fishing practices, to bolster support for making it a priority fish to protect. As a result, the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) received some 8,000 public comments by email. In November 2007, the NEFMC voted to reexamine herring regulation, adding the species to its 2008 management priority list. “The council made an important decision today to fix the Atlantic herring fishery,” Baker said in a statement issued immediately after the NEFMC vote. Yet not everyone agrees the fishery is broken.

Atlantic herring are small, streamlined fish reaching up to 10-14 inches (25-35 centimeters) in length that form enormous schools in the open waters and offshore banks of the Gulf of Maine. Herring hold a key spot in the middle of the food chain. They filter plankton from the water and are an important food source for large predators such as tuna, whales and sharks. “They eat really small things and are eaten by really big things,” Baker said. “They are some of the most nutritious foods available for the animals that feed on them.”

Herring have long been important for humans as well. Traditionally, they were harvested from fixed-gear traps called weirs, or caught in purse-seine nets drawn around their schools as they surfaced at night to feed on plankton. In parts of Canada, such as the Bay of Fundy, herring harvest methods are still fairly traditional, said Gary Melvin, a herring scientist at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. In U.S. waters, on the other hand, the face of the herring fishery has changed. In the last decade or so, large boats known as midwater trawlers have become the norm—and the source of much of the current controversy over the fishery.

Midwater trawlers tow vast nets to round up herring, often working in pairs with one net stretched between them. “The nets can be as long and as wide as a football field, and six to eight stories tall,” Baker said. “You’ve seen this shift in how herring are harvested. That’s what concerns a lot of us.”

The question for the NEFMC is whether that concern should translate into new management measures. Because Gulf of Maine herring move between Canadian and U.S. waters, the countries assess the stock jointly. The last Transboundary Resource Assessment Committee report in 2006 found the Gulf of Maine stock was healthy. “The fishery is in pretty good shape,” said Lori Steele, the Herring Fishery Management Plan Coordinator at the NEFMC. “The resource is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”

While herring remain abundant overall, they may be hard-hit in the inshore areas popular with trawlers. “When the trawl fleet moves in en masse, they can take so much herring so fast that the predators leave. As the midwater trawl fleet has exploded, tuna landings have plummeted,” said Baker. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

herring in netsBycatch is another concern. By the time trawlers haul in the nets, everything in them is typically dead. Bycatch stand little chance of being thrown back alive. “There are questions about what the fleet may be catching in terms of bycatch,” Steele noted. “The concern voiced to the council is about the need for better monitoring and accounting of catch and bycatch.”

Herring fishermen argue that they’re abiding by management rules, and that no evidence of a bycatch problem exists. Herring swim high in the water column, they point out, and the trawl nets don’t come anywhere near the seafloor, where groundfish such as cod and haddock spend most of their time.

Furthermore, they said, the NEFMC just implemented new regulations in the summer of 2007. Under the new amendments, only fixed-gear and purse-seine fishermen can harvest herring in the inshore area between June and September. Mary Beth Tooley, a spokesperson for the Small Pelagics Group, which represents fishing vessel owners, said it’s too soon to know if the new amendment will have a positive effect—and it’s unfair to saddle fishermen with additional regulations in the meantime. “They have no new information from the last go-around,” she said.

The Herring Alliance is calling for the NEFMC to create a monitoring system that ups the number of observers on herring boats. But that’s easier said than done. In 2005, observers were present on about 20 percent of herring fishing trips, Steele said. The last two years, that number has been much lower. Observers are funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service, she said, and NMFS has to prioritize the budget it’s handed by Congress.

For the record, stressed Tooley, “we’re not against increasing observer coverage.” Rather, she said, the industry resists the idea put forward by some environmentalists that boat owners should pay upwards of $1,000 a day to fund observers themselves. “We don’t think it’s fair to single us out among all the fisheries and say you have to have your own observers,” she said.

Now that the NEFMC has voted to add herring to its 2008 priority list, there’s nothing for either side to do except wait. It could be two years or more before any amendments are finalized and added to the management plan, Steele said. The council will take a hard look at the fishery, she said, and explore different programs for monitoring just what goes into the nets. “We need more information to better identify what specific problems there may be,” Steele said, adding that questions about bycatch and inshore depletion, “certainly are valid concerns. And I think the council has responded to that.”

Kirsten Weir is a free-lance writer in Saco, Maine, who focuses on science, health and the environment.

Fast Facts: Lobster Snacks
Once upon a time, most of the herring netted in the Gulf of Maine ended up in sardine tins. Today, only one cannery remains in New England. Some 60 to 80 percent of herring landings return to the sea as lobster bait.

The fish are so popular as bait, in fact, that Gulf of Maine Research Institute scientists are now investigating whether all that herring bait has fueled the growth of the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine.

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