Proposal to save herring left high and dry

BOSTON – A plan to protect the important Atlantic herring from what many believe is its biggest threat has been shelved indefinitely after years of work devising it — and even after winning support from the very vessels being targeted.

Last month, federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a measure that would have required independent catch observers aboard every trip taken by midwater trawlers, which can scoop hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring at a time out of the ocean.

Critics believed the observers would find that the vessels dump large amounts of herring and often inadvertently catch and kill critical marine species, such as cod or haddock. But trawler owners said the observers would vindicate them.

The New England Fishery Management Council approved the beefed-up observer coverage in June 2012. But federal regulators disapproved it last month. John Bullard, the Northeast’s top federal fishing regulator, said that it amounted to an unfunded mandate and that the council should have known that before it voted.

“We don’t have that money,” Bullard said.

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