NMFS approved the New England Fishery Management Council’s plan for a 12-mile offshore boundary for New England herring trawlers a few days before Thanksgiving, with a bump out to 20 miles off Cape Cod.
The decision culminates a two-decade battle over midwater trawling in the Gulf of Maine, and complaints that it causes localized depletion of herring and other fish that disrupts ecosystems and fishermen’s access to cod, haddock and other species.
“The council recommended the midwater trawl restricted area to mitigate potential negative socioeconomic impacts on other user groups resulting from short duration, high-volume herring removals by midwater trawl vessels,” NMFS Northeast regional administrator Michael Pentony wrote in a decision letter approving the New England council’s proposal.
“Because midwater trawl vessels are able to fish offshore, the council recommended prohibiting them from inshore waters to help ensure herring are available inshore for other users groups and predators of herring,” Pentony wrote.
The decision sets a 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone for the trawlers from the Maine-Canada border south to territorial waters off Connecticut. The line jogs out 20 miles off Cape Cod.
Midwater operators had been on the defensive for years, with escalating demands from conservation groups to protect New England river herring runs, and other user groups who insisted the fish are essential to their livelihoods, ranging from tuna fishermen, Cape Cod groundfish captains and whale-watching tour boat operators.
“This little fish means so much to our community,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance, a Chatham, Mass.-based association that for many years has pushed for the exclusion zone. Pappalardo has a seat on the New England council and advocated taking the step.
“People trying to resurrect our herring runs, support historic fishing effort, rebuild the ecosystem, all rallied around this one key step. This is a great moment for us all, truly worth a thanksgiving at Thanksgiving,” Pappalardo said in a prepared statement after NMFS confirmed the council decision.