Fishing regulators voted last week to require independent monitors on every trip of the largest herring vessels that work waters off New England.
The New England Fishery Management Council is trying to determine whether herring trawlers, with their massive nets and efficiency, are wiping out sea herring and doing lasting damage to other struggling northeastern species, according the Associated Press.
The herring industry says the often-repeated charge is baseless and there’s no reliable evidence that their boats are threatening either the industry or the ecosystem.
The industry and its critics backed the requirement Wednesday, confident they’ll be vindicated when the observers report what the trawlers do and don’t pull up.
“We need to clear the air of all the lies that’s been spoken over the last five years,” herring fisherman Peter Mullin said during the council meeting in Portland, Maine.
The measure that the New England Fishery Management Council approved is not expected to go into effect until at least next spring, as the industry and managers figure out how pay for it.
The tiny herring — no more than a foot long — are eaten pickled, but they’re far more often sold as bait for more valuable species such as lobster.
They’re seen as crucial by environmentalists and fishermen as prey for numerous important species, from striped bass to sea birds to whales.
Herring, a schooling fish, gather in masses that sometimes extend for miles. The largest herring boats, called mid-water trawlers for the part of the water column they work, tow 100-yard-long nets between them and can pull up hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring at a time. The new measure targets them, not boats that pull up the fish unintentionally.
Critics say the large trawlers aren’t just depleting herring stocks, they’re also inadvertently sweeping up struggling species such as cod along the way, preventing their populations from rebounding. They also say trawlers are snaring the river herring that sometimes mix with sea herring, hurting the local ecology and thinning out “herring runs” that occur each spring, when residents watch fish return to upstream birthplaces to spawn.
The trawler operators say herring are abundant and that the observations to date show they aren’t pulling up a large amount of unwanted fish.
After the vote, the cost of the observers emerged as a major issue. Earlier this month, the National Marine Fisheries Service told the council it didn’t have money to fund additional herring observers. The industry says it’s willing to pay $325 for each observer, each trip, but that’s well below a projected cost of $750 a day.