ROCKLAND, Maine — A little fish that New Englanders have sought since the Colonial era is at the center of a battle over how to manage massive boats that trawl swaths of ocean off the East Coast.
The catch for the Atlantic herring, which travels in groups sometimes numbering in the billions, is in the midst of a massive boom. Last year fishermen caught more than 95,000 metric tons of the fish for the first time since 2009, federal statistics show.
Now rival fishermen are raising concerns about the high catches, and regulators are starting to consider whether the big haul is adversely impacting the environment, marine mammals or other fisheries.
Herring trawlers have the ability to deplete localized areas of other fish, in part because the hulking boats leave pieces of ocean bereft of the herring other species they rely on to eat, some fishermen of species such as cod and tuna complain.
Steve Weiner, a tuna fisherman based out of Ogunquit, Maine, said the high herring catches need a hard look because of the fish’s status as a lynchpin of the Atlantic Ocean’s food web. Everything from seabirds to whale-watching boats rely on a steady supply of herring for stability, he said.
The issue is particularly concerning for Cape Cod fishermen, many of whom are struggling to make a living in a time of strict cod quotas, Weiner said.
“You have to worry about all the other people who depend on healthy herring resources,” he said. “When you get down to the Cape, it’s raw, real.”
But some herring fishermen dismiss those complaints as nonsense and reference federal studies that describe the species as “not overfished.”
The herring trawlers can be more than 100 feet long and drag 300-foot nets behind them to catch hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring. Fishermen of other species complain that they also take other fish as bycatch, and environmentalists have long charged that they sometimes kill marine mammals. Fishing observers found that midwater herring trawlers killed four pilot whales, three seals and a dolphin through incidental catch in Northeast oceans in 2014, federal statistics show.
Fishermen and conservationists have also charged that wiping herring out of localized areas of the ocean makes those areas economically worthless because other species then stay away.
The New England Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in the area, will solicit feedback from the industry and the public about the issue of “localized depletion,” said Lori Steele, a fishery analyst for the council. It’s too early to say what the council will do with the information, she said.
Mary Beth Tooley, who sits on the council, said it will be important to develop scientific metrics for localized depletion. Tooley also works in government relations for O’Hara Corporation, which operates two herring trawlers out of Rockland, Maine. She said the issue has become “political” in recent years.
“We hear a lot from tuna fishermen,” she said. “I think they would like us to catch less because they think it would make their fishing better.”
About half of the Atlantic herring caught last year came to shore in Maine, with Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey fishermen also reporting significant catches. The fish is in high demand in part because of its key role as the preferred bait for Maine’s lobster industry, which has also reported record catches in recent years. Herring that aren’t used as bait sometimes end up as food in the form of canned fish, and it is also popular smoked, pickled or salted.
Maine had its second-most productive herring fishing year since 2000 with more than 100 million pounds of herring brought to the docks in 2014. The fish were worth more than $16 million, an all-time high according to state records that go back to 1950, making it one of the most valuable fisheries in a state where fishing is the lifeblood industry.
But the Northeast herring fishery has struggled with quota cuts and wildly fluctuating catches as recently as this decade. Peter Baker, who directs the Herring Alliance conservation group, said the fishery is in need of closer monitoring.
“If you’ve got a boat that can catch half a million pounds overnight, you change all the other animals in the area,” he said. “There’s no reason for herring to stay there, no reason for whales to stay there, no reason for tuna to stay there.”
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, one of the busiest fishing ports on the East Coast, herring fisherman Jerry O’Neill said the abundance of herring and the strength of the lobster fishery have combined to keep business strong. He said he’s unmoved by complaints about herring trawlers disrupting other fisheries, which he said lack “actual, scientific” basis for their claims.
O’Neill said he’d like to see more New England waters opened to year-round herring fishing.
“It’s a healthy stock,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any basis for believing it’s an issue.”
But Rockland herring fisherman Glenn Robbins said tighter restrictions could be necessary. Robbins, who uses a different kind of gear, said the larger trawlers should be kept out of the Gulf of Maine year-round.
“They do kill the whales, they do kill the porpoises and seals. Anything that gets in them,” he said. “They never die in my net.”