Small Fish in Big Trouble

Small Fish in Big Trouble

New England's herring are in a pickle. Our fishermen have caught these small, oily fish for centuries without a problem. What's different today is that fishing fleets with nets the size of football fields are scooping up huge amounts of herring until the schools are broken up and leave the area. This is more than a tough break for the fish. It's quickly becoming a crisis for New England's marine economy.

In this region, herring are the linchpin of the ocean food web. They eat small plants and animals, and in turn are eaten by dozens of other species. The whales that tourists watch depend heavily on herring for food. So do striped bass, tuna, and cod, all of which are favorite targets of recreational fishermen. And without a sustainable herring fishery, the cod, tuna, and lobster industries would suffer.

Unfortunately, new, industrial-sized ships trawl back and forth through giant schools of herring, day and night, as if mowing a lawn or vacuuming a floor. In the end, few herring are left for the whales, dolphins, striped bass, tuna, and other ocean wildlife that are so important to our region's ocean economy.

These industrial ships, known as mid-water trawlers, have sailed into New England waters en masse over the last decade. Since 1995, the region's industrial mid-water trawl fleet has grown from one ship to more than 30. Ships of this scale had not fished New England waters since the foreign fleet wiped out herring stocks in the 1970s.

The buildup of this mammoth fleet has not only hurt herring and the species that rely upon them; it's also had a potentially severe impact on the region's traditional fishing businesses. Huge mid-water trawlers descend on discrete fishing grounds, such as Jeffrey's Ledge in the Gulf of Maine. In the course of a few days, they take so much herring that there's little left for the tuna, which therefore go elsewhere. Since the rise of mid-water trawling, New England's tuna harvest has plummeted. In Canada, meanwhile, industrial fishing is not allowed inshore, and the tuna harvest has grown. This is no coincidence.

It's time for the New England Fishery Management Council, which sets the rules for fisheries in the region and is meeting today through Thursday, to consider changes that would protect herring. Doing so now will ensure that all of New England's fisheries thrive in the future.

Three things need to happen right away.

First, we must put enough federal observers on ships to monitor wasteful fishing. Industrial fleets tow nets with a tiny mesh - nets that kill everything in their path. Whales, seals, dolphins, and fish are dumped back dead or dying into the sea. These industrial mid-water trawlers are banned in many parts of the world, and those still operating elsewhere in the United States must take federal observers aboard in sufficient numbers to document what they catch and throw back. But not in the Northeast. The New England Council should require enough observers onboard to hold this fleet accountable.

Second, the fleet should be kept offshore, away from the inshore fisheries that support our coastal economy.

Third, when fishery managers set fishing limits, they need to consider other animals that feed on herring. Without enough herring, creatures such as cod, haddock, tuna, whales, dolphins, seals, and seabirds will starve.

The industrial mid-water trawl fleet likes to claim that it is already well-monitored and regulated. Not so. In Alaskan waters, these same vessels would have federal observers onboard 100 percent of the time. Here in New England, the industrial fleet has observers onboard less than 6 percent of the time.

In addition, the industry claims that the problems that fishermen and conservationists point to in the industrial mid-water trawl fishery are common to all New England's fisheries. True, all of New England's fisheries could use better monitoring. But the traditional fleets that fish for cod, tuna, striped bass, and other stocks have existed for decades in New England, and their impacts are well known. The industrial mid-water trawl fleet is new, and operates on a worrisome scale. Very little is known about the long-term impact of this fleet on our ocean.

Herring are among the smallest fish in the sea, but also among the most important. The health of our ocean and the future of New England's traditional fisheries depend upon reforming this fishery.