PORT CLYDE — Last fall, as the “We are the 99 percent!” movement took off across America, I realized that New England fishermen are in the same plight.

The hundreds of fishermen in our region — the small, day-boat fleet that brings fresh seafood to your dinner table and the charter boat captains who take you out on the water to catch fish yourself — are paying the price for the mistakes of a few new-to-the-region industrial ships.

This fleet of about two dozen vessels pursues sea herring, the linchpin species of the ocean ecosystem. But their fishing practices have none of the regulation and supervision that the fishermen who harvest cod, flounder and other groundfish do.

I have been involved in the fishery as a fisherman’s wife and have had a vested interest in community-supported fisheries for the last 20 years. Community-supported groundfish fleets are rapidly disappearing.

Five years ago when our fishermen in Port Clyde started the Mid-Coast Fishermen’s Association, we had 12 fishing vessels. Today, only three groundfish vessels and two shrimp vessels remain.

Although we have seen increasing restrictions through the years and played by the rules, a 400-year-old tradition is now hanging on by bloody fingernails.

The fish are simply not coming back, although we have been assured time and again that if we just tightened our belts a little more each year, the fish stocks would be restored to the robust fishery that existed previously.

But this industrial fleet of midwater and pair trawlers is undermining all this, contributing to localized depletion by both catching groundfish and by removing their food source.

In 1976, the United States banned foreign factory trawlers from U.S. waters for 200 miles. Yet in the late 1990s, the U.S. allowed these same types of ships back into New England waters.

Midwater trawlers are the largest fishing vessels on the East Coast. They are up to 165 feet long, can hold up to 1 million pounds of fish and their nets are the size of a football field, with a 2-inch mesh in the cod end. Stating that they fish in the midwater column is a misnomer. These vessels have a proven track record of catching groundfish. In fact, they have a haddock catch cap and are known to tow on and just off the bottom, not exclusively in the midwater column.

Yet they are allowed to fish in closed sanctuary areas for groundfish where all other fishermen are not permitted to fish.

Our groundfish stocks are not rebounding like we hoped they would because the juveniles are being killed, not by groundfishermen, but by midwater trawlers.

These vessels “accidentally” kill millions of river herring each year.

River herring — a cousin to the sea herring, the fish the trawlers are after — are now being evaluated by the National Marine Fisheries Service for listing as an endangered species. They are depleted throughout their range, yet there is no limit to how many are killed by midwater trawlers.

Maine has some healthy river herring populations we all want to maintain. Protecting these fish at sea is critical to this objective.

After four years of development, on Wednesday in Portland the New England Fishery Management Council is finally going to vote on changes to the way this fishery is managed in order to add more supervision and accountability to fishing operations.

Community-based fishermen want the 28 boats that catch 95 percent of the herring to take a fisheries observer with them on each and every trip. They want them out of the groundfish closed areas. They want them to have to weigh all of the herring they catch.

These boats should be required to bring all of their catch on board (no more dumping at sea before an observer can sample the catch). They should have a cap on how many river herring they can kill as accidental bycatch each year.

I challenge all small-boat fishermen to take a stand on this critical issue. We are the 99 percent. Well-paid herring lobbyists, working for the 1 percent, are walking the halls in Washington and have places on the inside at the council level and will surely make themselves heard this month.

Will we continue to allow the 1 percent to decimate our fishery or will we stand together and take back our heritage before it is too late?

Kim Libby of Port Clyde is a fisherman’s wife. She may be reached at: [email protected]m

– Special to The Press Herald