Regulators on Tuesday tightened restrictions on the fishing of Atlantic herring but didnâ€™t go as far as some groups wanted to help rebuild declining stocks of the small, oily fish thatâ€™s not only important to New England fishermen but is also a critical link in the marine food chain.
The New England Fishery Management Council unanimously approved a new management approach that will dramatically cut the catch limits for herring over the next three years, but the regulatory board stopped short of temporarily shutting down the fishery, as one option on the table would have required.
The new rules adopted by the council, which put in place a formula for setting annual catch limits, were applauded by some environmental advocates as recognition of the fishâ€™s key role in the larger ocean ecosystem.
â€śThe population is stressed, and we really need to start building resiliency,â€ť Erica Fuller, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, told the council.
But the decision was made over the objections of groups representing commercial fishing boats that catch herring and lobstermen who use the fish as bait. They argue that the herring population goes through natural ups and downs influenced more by environmental factors than fishing pressure.
â€śThis stock has been at much lower levels in the absence of management,â€ť said Shaun Gehan, lawyer for the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, a group whose members include Seafreeze and The Town Dock, Rhode Island businesses that catch and process herring.
A representative of the Maine Lobstermenâ€™s Association called the decision â€śdevastatingâ€ť and said it would result in a shortfall of bait of nearly 80 million pounds.
The population of Atlantic herring has been in decline for five years, according to federal data. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it was cutting next yearâ€™s quota for the fish by 55 percent in a bid to prevent overfishing.
Groups such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, Save The Bay, Audubon Society and the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association had pushed for the regulatory change in a bid to set aside a certain portion of the herring population for other animals that depend on the fish as a food source. Predators range from whales to tuna, ospreys to terns.
They also advocated for buffer zones extending up to 50 nautical miles from shore that would exclude so-called midwater trawlers, the largest and most effective vessels that catch herring, which have been blamed for depleting herring numbers in certain areas.
In recognition of the trawlersâ€™ impact, the council also approved buffer zones that extend 12 nautical miles from shore.
Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison with North Kingstown-based Seafreeze, said there are no proven benefits to buffer zones but said the negative impacts on fishing boats will be serious.
â€śWeâ€™re supposed to manage for the net benefit of the nation based on science,â€ť she said to the council.
The council received more than 400 written comments on the new regulatory approach and form letters signed by 17,000 people. The option that received the most support was the strictest version of the ecosystem approach, the one that would have closed the fishery for the next three years.
Richard Hittinger, first vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, said the council didnâ€™t go far enough in its decision.
â€śBut it is a significant step in the right direction,â€ť he said in an email.