The Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association have brought a lawsuit to have federal regulatory agencies to enforce laws meant to protect populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish from industrial herring boats.
“Small fishermen in New England have made sacrifices to preserve a livelihood for future generations. But the current rules are undermining our hard work,” said Glen Libby, a commercial fisherman and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association. “When the rules are applied unevenly, everybody suffers.”
Mid-water trawlers drag massive small-mesh nets behind them, sometimes working in pairs towing an even bigger net between them. Stretching to 165 feet, these vessels can hold more than one million pounds of catch.
Midwater trawlers were initially banned from groundfish-closed areas in 1994. But in 1998 federal regulators decided to re-open these areas to trawlers, based on an assumption that the herring ships would catch little or no groundfish in their nets.
The policy has proved disastrous. While shortcomings in the federal monitoring program make precise numbers difficult to obtain, it is estimated that in recent years midwater trawl vessels have caught hundreds of thousands of pounds of mature and juvenile groundfish as bycatch. In a well-publicized 2004 enforcement sweep, personnel from the Maine Marine Patrol and Massachusetts Environmental Police caught midwater herring trawlers illegally trying to land thousands of pounds of juvenile haddock and hake mixed with their herring catch.