09/05/2010 - Fisheries have been an important part of New Hampshire's heritage since enormous quantities of cod brought fishermen to the Isles of Shoals in the early 1600s. Now, few cod or fishermen remain, but fishing heritage is intrinsic to our regional character. New Hampshire residents and visitors still enjoy fresh seafood caught and sold by community supported fisheries and schedule vacation time for fishing and whale-watching.
At the end of this month, the New England Fishery Management Council will meet to vote on critical new management measures to monitor the Atlantic herring fishery. This meeting is important to everyone concerned with restoring the Great Bay and New Hampshire's coastal ecosystem and preserving local fishing fleets. Atlantic herring (also called sea herring) are common in the Gulf of Maine, and eaten by every predator, including the cod and haddock we eat, and the whales, seals and seabirds we watch.
In 1902, the New England herring fishery was a shore fishery: 162 million pounds were caught with pound nets, weirs and haul seines that year, and 153 million pounds were caught near shore as late as 1960. Today, less than 17 million pounds of herring are caught in coastal waters.
Sea herring once spawned on nearly every suitable ground from Georges Bank to coastal estuaries, and the Gulf of Maine teemed with fish. In 1902, New Hampshire fisheries were diversified. 161 New Hampshire fishermen caught 100,000 pounds of herring, 350,000 pounds of alewives, and 50,000 pounds of cod in pound-nets and weirs, and more on hooks, 4,000 pounds of swordfish with harpoons, and 128,463 pounds of lobster. But by 1960, no Atlantic herring were landed here, and 80 percent of the catch was lobster. Seiners a few miles offshore prevented most herring from reaching the coast. The decline in coastal finfish suggests that groundfish fisheries may depend on the abundance and distribution of forage fish like herring.
Since 1994, large midwater trawlers have replaced small seiners to dominate the herring fishery, often taking fish before they've spawned. Population estimates show a significant decline in herring stock since 2000. These vessels may take 150,000 pounds of fish in one haul; in 2008, they took 165 million pounds of sea herring from New England waters. None were landed in New Hampshire, but New Hampshire's depleted marine ecosystem reveals the fishery's impact. Equally disappointing for fishermen, bird- and whale-watchers, predators of herring have also declined, or rarely appear inshore.
Other forage fish once important to New Hampshire were alewives and bluebacks (anadromous species together called river herring), but catch declined 80 percent from 1905 to 1999, when conservation measures were begun. Because they migrate along with Atlantic herring, river herring fall prey to midwater trawlers in large numbers. In 2007, river herring bycatch in New England totaled almost 1.7 million pounds. In fact, bycatch from one tow on one vessel in 2007 exceeded the largest river herring run in New Hampshire, the Lamprey River, by three times.
Since river herring transfer essential nutrients across fresh- and saltwater ecosystems, ecosystem health depends in part on restoring them. Conservation and restoration efforts now focus on restoring the Great Bay and the Lamprey River. Yet local conservation cannot prevent midwater trawler bycatch, and this threatens New Hampshire's ecosystem quality. Midwater trawler bycatch needs to be addressed immediately by the fishery council. While bycatch is monitored, the number of trips monitored is low, and managers and industry seem loathe to alter the status quo. Currently, midwater trawlers could, unobserved, scoop up all of New Hampshire's alewives and bluebacks.
The council will discuss new management measures to solve these problems. Their decisions will affect the seafood supply, ecosystem health and quality of life on the Seacoast, and it should be of interest to everyone. We recommend 100 percent monitoring of industrial midwater trawlers to match compliance of similar fleets on the West Coast. Additional observers are needed to collect reliable trip data; however graduate students could be trained to do this as interns or for credit. All data need to be available to researchers and the public. The fishery should be closed seasonally to protect sea herring spawning areas and hot spots where river and sea herring school together. Bycatch caps for river herring need to be set. Loopholes that permit sorting or dumping without examination should be closed so accurate estimates of bycatch can be made, and pumps should be stopped periodically to identify bycatch.
Bill Leavenworth and Karen Alexander are historical marine ecologists at the Ocean Process Analysis Lab at University of New Hampshire.