The baiting game

If it isn't one thing it's another, say seiners hit with zero-tolerance rule on spawning herring

By Kirk Moore

It's a moonless night in the Gulf of Maine. In the wheelhouse of the blacked-out Western Sea, radar and sonar screens cast weird palls of blue and red on captain Danny Fill and his crew as they watch for herring on the sounders. The light accentuates barely simmering anger in their faces.

"Last year we had two and half million pounds this week. This week it's 100,000 pounds," says Shaun Rockett, the purse seiner's skiff man and engineer. He pulls sharply on his cigarette, one from a carton of Marlboros that he and Fill are burning through tonight in their frustration.

"We know where the fish are," Rockett adds, with a jet of smoke. "You just can't go there."

After inshore Maine waters closed to midwater herring trawling this past summer, the region's traditional purse seine sardine fleet and their customers came under pressure too, from an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission mandate for zero-tolerance of spawning herring bycatch in the lobster bait industry.

Pushed offshore by area closures, Fill and other seiners hunted around, telling each other and anyone else who would listen that rolling shutdowns were not conservation, but political payback for the purse seiners' support of closing the whole inshore Area 1A to midwater trawling during the summer months.

"We've always gone to sardines" — juvenile herring — "when the spawners come on," Fill says. "What these midwater trawlers really want is to save the quota for when they can get back in. If they can knock some of the smaller guys out of the business, they can take it. They're looking at the long dollar."

The first summer of this new herring conservation regime had herring fishermen, lobstermen and bait dealers uncertain and anxious, prone to believe the worst predictions of economic and political consequences. But that griping was tempered with optimism, as some reported new signs of abundance.

"There's been a general resurgence not only of herring, but in whiting too," says Rich Ruais of the East Coast Tuna Association, whose members pushed hard for a June through September ban on midwater trawls in Area 1A.

This summer tuna harpooners reported "a lot of life in the water, compared to when the trawls were breaking up the [herring] schools," Ruais said. "From our perspective, the buffer zone worked. We never expected there would be miraculous changes overnight in the tuna fishing.

"But in the long term, it looks promising," Ruais says, with fishermen seeing more juvenile bluefin tuna in the 40- to 110-pound range. Meanwhile, the giants are staying farther east.

A study published by University of New Hampshire researchers last summer suggested herring forage for bluefins may be only part of the story for a trans-Atlantic population beset by overfishing in eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, to say nothing of climate change.

"The numbers of tuna, whales and birds seem to be up, and fishermen say they're seeing some improvement in groundfish. We like to think that has a lot to do with the closure," says Peter Baker, campaign manager for the Herring Alliance, a Pew Charitable Trusts-funded umbrella group for critics of midwater trawling.

"It's nice to see the [New England] council take action, and have it work."

But not everyone agrees that absence of the midwater boats and reports of abundance are a matter of cause and effect.

"It's hard to understand how almost overnight things improved throughout the ecosystem," says Jeff Kaelin, a consultant for the Raber family, owners of the Portland, Maine-based trawler Providian. "We think those claims that eliminating trawls after June 1 dramatically turned everything around just don't have any basis in science."

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