Pat Wellenbach, Associated Press
BOSTON — New England's historic fishing industry doesn't spare much of its romance for the herring.
The tiny fish is, at most, a foot long. The price per pound often won't even buy 12 minutes at a Boston parking meter. Some people eat it pickled, but herring is mainly caught to become bait for more popular seafood, such as lobster.
The herring, though, is deeply important to fishermen and environmentalists, who are fighting to put greater restrictions on trawlers that pull up hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring at a time.
They argue that the large trawlers are depleting a species that's a critical food for just about every prized commercial fish in the region, from cod to striped bass. The herring's influence even extends to ocean tours, which depend on abundant herring to attract whales and birds to the ocean surface to feed and be seen.
"For many people who don't work on the water, make their money on the water, I think it's easy to underestimate the importance of herring," said Tom Dempsey of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
The New England Fishery Management Council is considering clamping down on midwater herring trawlers, named for the area of the water column they the pull their nets through. A series of eight public hearings around the Northeast wrapped up Thursday in Cape May, N.J., and council action is expected in June.
The proposals include tighter requirements on how the trawlers weigh their catch and bans on certain fishing areas.
A key proposal would force trawlers to carry independent observers on every trip, in part to stop suspected over-catching and dumping of protected species the herring boats snare unintentionally, such as cod and haddock.
"It's time for a change in that fishery," said Bob St. Pierre, who fishes for tuna, striped bass and groundfish out of Chatham.
But the herring industry says there's scant evidence their trawlers are the menaces they're portrayed as.
Mary Beth Tooley, a long-time herring industry member and also a Maine representative on the regional management council, said the stock is robust, and there's no research yet to contradict that. There's also no data to show the midwater trawlers are catching and killing huge amounts of other fish species.
Opponents complain scientists have simply been slow to collect the information. But Tooley said the herring industry is getting battered based on a faulty assumption that because the boats are big — up to 165 feet long — they're doing big damage.
"I think perception is everything," she said. "I don't think there's a lot we can do to overcome that perception."
Herring was the fifth-highest revenue fishery in New England in 2010, bringing in nearly $21 million on 140 million pounds of fish (15 cents per pound), according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The bulk of the catch, about 80 percent, was bait for commercial and sport fishermen.
Herring are a schooling fish and can congregate in masses the size of Manhattan. Steve Weiner, a harpoon tuna fishermen, describes being atop colossal "vortexes" of herring, as whales, other fish and countless birds dove into them.
"It's scary even to be in it, because these animals are just drunk on herring," Weiner said.
But St. Pierre said he doesn't see any more huge herring shoals in local waters, and that's coincided with the appearance of the midwater trawlers.
The trawlers often work in pairs, pulling a football field-sized net between them, then sucking the herring from the net into ships' holds. The trawlers, with crews of about six, dominate the local herring catch and work with remarkable efficiency.
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