SMAST initiative on bycatch gains acceptance from fishery managers
By DON CUDDY
July 10, 2012 12:00 AM
NEW BEDFORD — The New England Fisheries Management Council has adopted a program to help herring fishermen that was created by students at the School for Marine Science and Technology.
The initiative, developed at the UMass Dartmouth school, will help commercial fishermen avoid catching river herring when they are targeting sea herring.
The council approved the SMAST program as the primary means of dealing with the bycatch problem at its June meeting, said David Pierce, the deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries who is also a member of the fishery management council. A lot of people contributed to the program's development, he said.
"This has been a joint effort. My staff certainly deserves credit. But SMAST has been in the lead and the hard work of the students there has made this happen," he said.
"There were a number of other options the council had, like closing certain areas to fishing or setting a cap on bycatch. But this was the one they went with," said Dave Bethoney, a Ph.D. student at SMAST, who has worked on the avoidance plan from the beginning.
Since January 2011, a dozen herring trawlers have participated in the program, a collaborative effort between SMAST, Division of Marine Fisheries and the herring industry. It was funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The program grew out of SMAST's success with a similar initiative, intended to help the scallop fleet avoid yellowtail flounder bycatch, Bethoney said. Herring trawlers provide advance notice of their return to port and are met by DMF personnel who take samples of the entire catch as it is being unloaded. Data on the amount of river herring landed, and where it was caught, is used to identify river herring "hot spots." These locations are then plotted on a grid and the results are emailed to herring boats at sea, allowing them to steer clear of river herring.
"We invest in a number of conservation programs to protect river herring so we are pleased," said Anthony Chatwin, a marine conservation director with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. "I think this speaks volumes for the work SMAST has been doing with the industry." The project has a further two years to run, Chatwin said. Bethoney said he is hopeful that the system will improve further by building on what has been learned.
In recent years, the steep decline in the number of river herring returning to coastal rivers to spawn has become a contentious issue. An environmental group, Earthjustice, sued the federal government claiming that regulators had not done enough to protect these fish by imposing more stringent regulations on herring trawlers.
The sea herring industry has always maintained that it is not responsible for the demise of river herring. In response to the lawsuit, the council recently agreed to develop a program that will require observers at sea on the herring boats to monitor the catch.
Peter Moore, the herring industry's liaison between SMAST and DMF on bycatch avoidance, said the council's action in adopting the SMAST model was a positive development and welcomed by fishermen. "I'm glad they (the council) were wise enough to do this," he said. "It has a lot of value. It stands up to scrutiny and it will allow us to get beyond the rhetoric and see what's really happening at sea."