PORT CLYDE – I’ve been a commercial groundfisherman for 12 years and make my living bringing cod, haddock, dabs, hake and pollock to Maine’s dinner tables.

I have seen many changes out on the water, but none is as frustrating to me as the double standard of what are called “closed areas.”

Issues surrounding these regulatory closures are being addressed in the development of what is called Amendment Five to the herring fishery management plan, which is the subject of a two-day Herring Oversight Committee meeting beginning today in Portland.

A closed area is a measure used by fisheries managers to reduce fishing effort in order to protect vulnerable species. There are two types of closed areas, one for habitat and the other for spawning, and they set aside large areas of the ocean so fish can reproduce and juveniles can hide.

In the mid-1990s, groundfishing was banned in five designated areas off New England’s shores.

These areas are supposed to be undisturbed, which sounds like a good plan, but unfortunately, the rules for other fisheries are not the same as they are for groundfishermen.

To start, there is no bottom trawling allowed in these areas, and there shouldn’t be. What concerns me is that midwater and pair trawl gear used in the Atlantic herring fishery is allowed in the closed areas, and this is just wrong as far as I’m concerned.

Herring trawl gear is supposed to be used in the middle of the water column, hence the term “midwater.” In actuality, these trawlers often tow right on the bottom, and metal debris in midwater trawl nets has been officially documented by the federal observer program and reported in public fishery management meetings.

Furthermore, the size and power of this gear contrasts sharply with the groundfishermen’s traditional otter trawls.

For example, midwater trawl ships are over three times the size of traditional Maine fishing boats. Their nets are as big as a football field and six stories high. They are made with very small mesh, about 2 inches wide, whereas the nets I tow have 6.5-inch mesh.

The primary reason that this type of gear disturbs me is the volume of fish that it is capable of catching within these closed area sanctuaries.

The midwater trawl nets can catch hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish at a time.

The way these nets are used to catch herring — they are often pulled between two industrial-sized vessels in a practice called pair trawling — has contributed to the catch of a lot of untargeted fish, known as bycatch, which is thrown overboard dead.

This slows the recovery of important groundfish stocks such as cod and haddock.

For example, in October 2008, federal fisheries observers documented a single midwater trawl tow with 21,000 pounds of haddock bycatch.

That is more haddock than any of us in Port Clyde would catch in a year. As a fisherman, these incidents are alarming to me. This type of gear should not be allowed in closed areas at all.

And whenever and wherever they fish, there is a critical need to have at-sea monitoring on every one of those vessels and all of the catch needs to be brought aboard for sampling by the observer.

Historically, monitoring has been less than 3 percent of all trips and dumping of unmonitored catch has been allowed.

With no inspection and no accountability, the reliability of the data is undermined even when observers are aboard.

All fisheries have monitoring requirements. In the groundfish fishery, 38 percent of our trips will be monitored this year, not a measly 3 percent.

There is a need for much more monitoring of the herring trawlers, especially given their size and power.

I think there should be an observer on board for every trip, like they do with ships this size on the West Coast. More importantly, fisheries managers should not allow these vessels to go into closed areas that are critical for protecting and rebuilding groundfish stocks.

Groundfish bycatch in the herring trawl fishery has been documented in the closed areas, and it needs to stop now.

Allowing these industrial-scale vessels into sensitive closed areas simply doesn’t seem like good management, not only to me but to other groundfishermen who are struggling to survive while these commercially important populations rebuild.

When rebuilding fish populations is at stake, the rules should be the same for all fishermen.

The New England Fishery Management Council needs to get rid of this double standard in Amendment Five.

 

– Special to The Press Herald