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October 31, 2008

Haddock bycatch upsets groundfishermen

by Jennifer Litteral

Lobstermen up and down the coast of Maine this month reported finding large amounts of haddock mixed in their herring bait.

The haddock, caught as bycatch by industrial midwater trawl ships fishing for herring on Georges Bank, was the most seen mixed in with lobster bait to date this year.

Maine Marine Patrol Officer Wesley Dean happened to be in the area and witnessed the October 4 incident in Port Clyde. "The bait delivery truck that I witnessed in Port Clyde was believed to be filled right from the midwater trawler boats in Gloucester," said Dean.

Roughly 35,000 pounds of herring will support 24 lobstermen from Port Clyde for a week. It takes millions of pounds of herring to supply the entire coast of Maine with bait for the lobster fishery.

"I witnessed about 1,000 pounds of adult haddock being off-loaded from only this one truck that holds 35,000 pound of herring," said Dean.

Days-at-sea management tightly regulates the groundfish fishery and those fishermen feel they are paying dearly with these measures to restore the stocks. "While it's legal for the midwater trawler fishery to land this haddock as bycatch, the groundfish fishermen in Port Clyde feel it is a slap in the face that thousands of pounds of haddock were wasted," said Dean.

The region's groundfish fishermen called for action. Glen Libby, chairman of Midcoast Fishermen's Association wrote to George Lapointe of the Maine Department of Marine Resources asking that something be done.

"Imagine a similar situation where lobsters were 'accidentally' caught, landed and given away by Maine groundfish boats," said Libby. "I doubt that this would be well received by lobster fishermen."

"Maine groundfishermen have been struggling for years to rebuild our stocks under the failed days-at-sea system," said Libby. "While haddock has been a success the remaining stocks have not been that fortunate and we may be faced with massive cuts in effort for 2009 to address these stocks of concern."

One success touted in the recent Groundfish Stock Assessment by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center is that haddock stocks have been rebuilt. Fisherman Craig Pendleton said: "We have sacrificed for two decades to rebuild the haddock and now the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is allowing midwater trawlers to slaughter massive amounts of haddock right in front of our eyes." Pendleton has both his boat and fishing permit for sale on the market, a casualty of the struggling groundfish industry.

"It's about time that the groundfish industry is afforded the same protections that have worked so well for our lobster industry," said lobsterman Gary Libby. "The midwater trawl bycatch problem needs to be fixed and fixed now."

Tom Rudolph of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association (CCCHFA) said: "Because the existing monitoring system has neither robust coverage nor transparency, we are forced to draw conclusions based on what little we know, which is that there is a lot of lobster bait in Maine that is mixed with as much as 3 percent haddock." Rudolph said the midwater trawl fleet has taken about 11,000,000 pounds of herring from Georges in the past two weeks, much of it from inside Closed Area I.

"It is not acceptable to let upward of 300,000 pounds of haddock go right through a loophole into lobster traps. Their haddock catch is supposed to be capped, but there is no actual attempt to count it. The only haddock counted are those seen by the few federal observers that make it on the boats, and that system is fatally flawed because they are allowed to dump nets with haddock in them without letting the observers sample the fish," said Rudolph.

Frank O'Hara, Sr. of O'Hara Corporation in Rockland Maine and owner of several herring fishing boats, said: "We heard rumors of some bycatch of haddock from the herring boats that were out fishing on Georges Bank, but our boats weren't out there yet." O'Hara's boats fish for herring with purse seining gear inshore of the Gulf of Maine, in area 1A, from June through September, and then are refitted with midwater trawling gear to fish off-shore in the fall. "We did recently buy some herring for bait from the boats that were fishing off Georges Bank and it did have some small amounts of haddock, but nothing like an incident of juvenile haddock bycatch that happened a few years back," said O'Hara. "We don't run into haddock when we are fishing inshore with purse seining gear, only out on Georges and that hasn't been a problem for a few years. Our boats are just getting out to fish on Georges now and we will know shortly if haddock are a problem."

Currently the Midcoast Fishermen's Association (MFA) is in federal court challenging the rules that allow industrial trawlers to fish in "groundfish closed areas," which are spawning grounds closed to other vessels capable of catching groundfish. These areas have been identified as vital to restoring depleted groundfish stocks.

Recent haddock bycatch incidents were reported to have taken place in a "groundfish closed area" off of Cape Cod. "There may be rules in place that allow some haddock to be landed legally as bycatch," said Roger Fleming an Earthjustice attorney representing the MFA in its federal court challenge. "However, even under the outdated closed area rules there are specific provisions that should lead to restrictions or prohibitions of midwater trawl activities in closed areas when the bycatch rate reaches the level reported by Officer Dean," said Fleming.

The New England Fishery Management Council is currently developing Amendment 4 for herring and working to implement more robust monitoring into this fishery. Peter Baker, Director of the Herring Alliance, said "We've been calling for an adequate monitoring system for the herring fishery for years. Maybe these incidents will finally get the process moving."

Jennifer Litteral is the marine programs officer at the Island Institute.



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