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Peter Baker of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, CHOIR and now the chairman of the newly formed Herring Alliance at a press conference on a pier in Portland, June 20, 2007. The herring alliance was formed to challenge the industrial herring trawler fleet in the Gulf of Maine, which operates without observer oversight. Herring resources have been fished to collapse by this type of ship. Lobster and other herring dependant commercial fisheries have expressed their fear of that eventuality. Photo: Fishermen's Voice
PORTLAND, June 20— The new Herring Alliance launched a campaign recently for major reforms on how, when and where Atlantic herring are caught.

The alliance is a coalition of conservation groups that includes the Conservation Law Foundation, Earthjustice, Greenpeace, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, Environment Maine, and U.S. PIRG, and is led by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Other national and local organizations are expected to join the group over the coming months.

The alliance (www.herringalliance.org) called on the New England Fisheries Management Council to take action against industrial mid-water trawl ships operating inshore. “We’re exploring all the legal tools available to us,” said Conservation Law Foundation attorney Roger Fleming, adding, “We’re not ruling out litigation,” particularly with regard to how the fishery is prosecuted, its impacts on herring and other species, and the lack of oversight.

As a key step, the alliance is calling for increased observer coverage onboard the trawlers.

Currently, observers are onboard the trawlers only three percent of the time.

The Maine group CHOIR is calling for 50-100 percent coverage for at least one year and possibly two, and has gone to Congress to request $1.5 million for increased coverage. “There’s a huge black hole, a lack of information about what they’re doing on the water,” said Peter Baker, the Herring Alliance’s campaign manager from the Pew Environment Group.

In the meantime, said CHOIR members, the organization is undertaking its own monitoring program, using vessels and planes to do at-sea observations. CHOIR is also studying the available data to fill in the gaps in federal oversight.

“We are hoping to raise awareness of the fact that fishermen are stepping up,” said Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association member Tom Rudolph.

The problem with the low level of coverage, said Rudolph, is what’s known as the “observer effect.”

“You behave differently when you’re watched than when you’re not,” he said.

Real-time and accurate reporting is a must, the alliance said. In the last two weeks of May, a pulse of fishing resulted in an overage in landings. The total allowable catch for Area 1A, the inshore area, is 50,000 metric tons, with a subquota from January to May of 5,000 mt. The trawler fleet took 3,500 mt beyond the limit.

“It was very intensive fishing,” said Baker. “What we’re hearing from folks who were on the water is that there was unprecedented midwater activity in the Gulf of Maine in late May.” The overage is not acceptable for a quota fishery, said Gib Brogan of Oceana.

It also means fishermen will have to take fewer herring the remainder of the year which, said the alliance, could significantly impact lobster fishermen, dependent as they are on a steady supply of bait.

“Maine lobstermen will pay the price of the industrial fleet going over the quota,” a representative said.

Alliance representatives said last week they want to see science play a greater role in determining how to best regulate commercial herring fishing.

In addition to improved monitoring, the alliance aims to reform how industrial mid-water trawling is managed by limiting bycatch and basing allowable herring catches on the best available science to leave sufficient herring in the ecosystem as forage.

“This isn’t about being anti the herring fishery,” said Ray Kane, a commercial tuna fisherman from Chatham, Mass., “It’s about fishing in such a way that is sustainable and respects the fragility of the ocean’s resources.”

Alliance representatives said they are not opposed to the fishing of herring, but rather to the methods currently being employed.

“Huge ships dragging nets larger than football fields between them crisscross the sea off the New England coast, wiping out entire schools of herring and killing finfish and marine mammals that feed upon them,” said Mr. Baker. “It’s not just that this by-catch of tuna, striped bass, seals, dolphins and even whales threatens the survival of these sea creatures, which is bad enough. Worse still, this industrial fishing threatens the entire food web of the North Atlantic.”

Specifically, the alliance is urging NEFMC and the National Marine Fisheries Service: to establish ecosystem-based catch limits that leave sufficient herring in the ecosystem as forage for other marine predators; regulate herring trawling using buffer zones and time and area closures that both minimize bycatch and avoid localized depletion to ensure sufficient herring is present for other predators; and monitor and minimize bycatch of commercially and recreationally important fish stocks. These fish stocks include: juvenile or spawning Atlantic herring, depleted river herring and groundfish, as well as whales, seals, dolphins, and porpoises.

Much of the big trawler fleet is found in New Bedford and Gloucester, Mass., with some smaller boats in Rockland and Point Judith. They have come from Alaska and Europe. American Freedom is a 384-foot freezer ship with financing from Norway. The mid-water trawl vessels are over 100 feet long and can hold up to one million pounds of fish that are caught by dragging small-mesh nets wider than a football field and several stories tall at high speeds. Alliance representatives noted that the big ships are uncharacteristic of New England’s traditional fishing fleet.

The trawlers, Alliance reps said, “vacuum up” the inshore herring areas and when they leave, “the ocean is like a desert.”