In late May, Raymond Kane, a former commercial fisherman based in Chatham, Mass., began fielding frantic calls from Cape Cod residents about a pair of giant boats cruising within sight of the beach, towing a net the size of a football field between them.
The boats dwarfed all other vessels on the water. Approximately 160 feet long and four stories high, they resembled cruise ships. Their below-deck holds could store up to 1 million pounds of Atlantic herring, a slim, silvery forage fish that is used as bait in New England’s lobster industry, one of the most lucrative fisheries in the region.
The vessels had scooped up 160 percent of their allotted herring limit in that area. Worse, this was the third time in six years that the herring trawlers had overshot their quota. The trawlers caught so much herring in such a short period that the National Marine Fisheries Service on May 24 issued an emergency order closing the fishery in the waters off Cape Cod’s eastern shore to prevent damage to herring stocks.
Removing herring from the ocean to bait lobster traps takes dinner away from dolphins, seals, whales, striped bass, cod, bluefin tuna, and other marine life that depend on the herring for essential nutrition.
“We had a lot of whales out here before [the trawl fleet] arrived,” said Kane, who works as an outreach coordinator for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “Once they’ve decimated the sea herring, everything moves along—whales, striped bass, blue fin tuna, seabirds. They vacate the area.”
The herring fishery’s trawlers work in tandem to pull nets that can scoop up 200,000 pounds of ocean life in a single tow. The boats are so efficient that after a few days of work, pair trawls can wipe out all the Atlantic herring in a particular swath of ocean.
That in turn affects recreational fishing, charter boat companies, smaller-scale commercial fishing, whale watching tourism, and other industries that rely on abundant marine life in the North Atlantic.
Another problem is that fish and other animals can get stuck in the gigantic trawl nets as bycatch.
The trawlers “will be towing what they think is sea herring, and then they’ll bring the net up and it will be striped bass,” said Peter Baker, director of the Northeast Fisheries Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Now they’ve killed 30,000 pounds of striped bass as bycatch, or they’ve killed a few dozen dolphins.”
Although it doesn’t happen every time, “the scale of the mistake is huge,” Baker said.
Herring representatives said overfishing incidents can happen because the nine herring trawlers that fish in the Atlantic are owned by different companies. It’s the responsibility of the government, they argue, to calculate the amount of fish caught in a timely manner and then shut down the fishery when the quota is reached.
“We fish until we are told not to by the federal government,” said Ryan Raber, who manages the Ocean Spray Partnership, which owns the herring trawler Providian. “It’s not our onus to shut ourselves down. I don’t know what any other boats catch. There’s no way for industry to self-regulate the catch in that area.”
In the late 1960s, foreign fishing vessels caught 1 billion herring in a single year from the Atlantic Ocean. The collapse of the herring population from overfishing compelled Congress in 1976 to pass the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which expelled foreign fishing boats from U.S. waters. A later version of that same law requires fishery managers to set hard caps on the amount of fish that can be caught. Congress is debating the reauthorization of the law.
Following the ban on foreign vessels, herring stocks slowly recovered. Then, in the mid-1990s, modern domestic trawlers arrived in Atlantic waters and began putting pressure on the herring population. That in turn triggered regulations imposing a coast-wide cap on the herring catch.
The current herring quota is divided into management areas, which span the Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic states to the Canadian border. Each section has its own quota, which requires NMFS to shut down the fishery when the trawlers have caught 92 percent of their allotted limit.
As a punitive measure for overshooting its limit in the waters off Cape Cod, the herring industry will be required to deduct the amount of fish it caught over the limit from its total future catch—but not until 2016.
Some environmentalists say those regulations aren’t protective enough. After all, herring doesn’t just attract lobsters to traps; it also feeds whales and seals and fish and birds. Some have argued that removing herring from the ecosystem causes unsustainable “localized depletion.”
“When vast quantities of herring are removed each year (i.e., hundreds of thousands of tons), this has a major impact on the availability of food for other fish and for struggling whale populations, and this causes impacts that ripple throughout the whole ecosystem,” says a report from the Herring Alliance, a group of organizations advocating for the protection of herring and other forage fish.
Baker said that putting more federal inspectors on the decks of trawlers would be a partial solution. Observers could weigh and certify the catch and also help fishery managers quantify the amount of bycatch that turns up in the giant nets.
Over the last decade, between 3 and 17 percent of the herring trawlers’ trips have been covered by fishery observers.
“The problem with that is that at those low levels, it’s easy for the vessels to change their behavior when there is an observer on board,” Baker said.
Similar fisheries on the West Coast require between 30 and 100 percent so-called observer coverage, according to the Herring Alliance. But in 2012 NMFS rejected a measure that would have required an observer on all industrial herring trawlers and limited the ability to dump bycatch at sea.
“The economic activity [herring trawlers] generate is small compared to other fisheries, but their impact on the ecosystem is huge,” Baker said.