Herring are no longer a major food fish in New England, and the few dozen boats in the region that still catch the fish — commonly known as sardines — sell them primarily as lobster bait.

But the small, silvery fish that swim in huge schools are at the center of a fierce controversy. On Tuesday, the New England Fishery Management Council is scheduled to start forming a new management plan for the fishery. The effort has pitted the fleet of mid-water trawlers that catch herring against environmental groups, commercial groundfishermen and recreational anglers.

“This one has been a tough one. It is complicated and extremely controversial,” said Lori Steele, the council’s management plan coordinator.

The herring fishery comprises 35 to 40 boats, most of them mid-water trawlers based in Maine and Massachusetts. That’s a small number relative to the groundfishing fleet in New England.

Herring’s ecological importance is enormous, because it is a major food source for groundfish, marine mammals, tuna and other species. It also is the preferred bait for Maine’s 5,800 lobstermen — whose industry generates $300 million a year in sales and employs thousands of workers at processing plants, dealerships and restaurants.

Traditionally, New England herring fishermen used purse seines, going out at night, when herring rise to the surface, and encircling the fish in purse-shaped nets. In the 1990s, mid-water trawlers entered the fishery.

A mid-water trawler pulls a cone-shaped net below the surface, sometimes with another boat, and can haul in hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring in a single tow.

There are now only a handful of purse seiners left.

SCIENCE UNCERTAIN

A lack of information about what is happening with herring and how the fishery affects groundfish and other species is feeding the controversy over herring management.

Steele said it appears that the stock is in good shape and isn’t being overfished. But the science used to assess the stock is uncertain.

Because researchers were no longer confident about their assumptions, the fishing quota for herring was drastically reduced last year, from 145,000 metric tons to 92,000 metric tons.

While the information the council has suggests that the fishery doesn’t have major problems with bycatch — bringing in species other than herring — there isn’t a lot of information.

“The only way to address that is to improve the monitoring program,” Steele said.

Regulators now monitor herring boats through dockside inspections, catch reports and on-board observation. Opponents of mid-water trawlers are pushing for much more oversight.

Environmental groups claim the trawlers are killing large numbers of fish, birds and marine mammals that feed on herring. Groundfishermen say the boats are catching large numbers of cod, haddock and other groundfish inadvertently and disturbing spawning grounds. Recreational fishermen say the mid-water trawlers have decimated stocks of river herring.

“We don’t have a problem with the herring fishery. Our problem is with the gear they are using, the industrial-scale fishing, night and day, and its implications for the other fish they catch,” said Peter Baker, director of the Herring Alliance, a coalition founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

At least two herring-related lawsuits have been filed against the federal government by various fishing interests.

Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, sued in 2008 on behalf of Port Clyde’s Midcoast Fishermen’s Association. The organization wants the government to ban the trawlers from spawning grounds that are already off-limits to groundfishing.

Earthjustice filed another lawsuit on Sept. 20, on behalf of a recreational fishing association in Massachusetts, against federal regulators and Atlantic state marine fishery departments, including the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The lawsuit contends that the governments failed to regulate the herring fishery, which decimated the river herring stock through bycatch.

Supporters of mid-water trawlers say they are not to blame for the river herring’s decline, nor are their vessels responsible for more bycatch than any other fishery.

“We are not the smoking gun. I object to the campaign to put us out of business,” said Peter Moore of Freeport.

WHO WILL PAY?

Moore is a member of the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, which includes the mid-water trawling industry. He also is a partner in NORPEL, a herring and mackerel fishing and processing business in New Bedford, Mass., that uses mid-water trawlers.

Moore said he supports regulations based on reliable science, but right now it doesn’t exist.

His organization is working with a $250,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to figure out more about the trawlers’ impact on river herring, and to develop a system to avoid schools of river herring at sea. Moore said he is not opposed to more onboard monitoring, as long as herring fishermen don’t wind up paying the costs.

Maine lobstermen haven’t taken sides. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said her group is waiting to see what changes the management council proposes.

“The basic concern we have is, how is it all going to be paid for. We don’t want any costs passed on to the lobster fishery,” McCarron said.

George LaPointe, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said he wants to see regulations that provide more information about monitoring the fishery and bycatch — not just by mid-water trawlers but also by purse seiners.

“Let’s address this regardless of fishing gear,” LaPointe said.

On Tuesday, the council’s herring committee will consider a range of changes to the herring regulations to address concerns about bycatch and the fishery’s impact on groundfishing.

“It is hard to say where we are going to end up,” said Steele, the plan coordinator.

The council will then analyze the alternatives for their biological, economic and social impact and seek public input at meetings around New England next year. 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com