Sea Herring Dilemma
By Doug Jowett

What fish commercially landed in Maine represents the largest tonnage? Oh, that's easy you say, it must be lobsters. Wrong! According the scientific data it is sea herring. Yes, the lowly sea herring provides more commercial tonnage than any other product from Maine's waters. (see the pie chart)

So, sea herring get all the attention and protection from over exploitation, right? Wrong again!

The more familiar I get with ocean fisheries, the more confused I become. The ocean is a big eco-system which presents major problems in determining how the entire system provides for itself. Then man enters the picture as a hunter/gatherer of all that is good from the ocean to disturb that balance Mother Nature intended. Is man doing a good job as stewards of the precious resources represented in the oceans? Sometimes I wonder when I watch with more than casual interest in fisheries management of our oceans.

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One of the food supplies for all that lives in the vast oceans are sea herring which are represented by schools of unknown size roaming the waters. Predator fish seek out these richly nutritious morsels to survive and live healthy lives.

With healthy stocks of sea herring in the North Atlantic we can count on healthy populations of other fish species like striped bass, bluefish, bluefin tuna, lobsters, whales and other feeders in the ocean. When sea herring stocks are not so healthy, everything in the ocean responds by changing feeding and migrations patterns seeking out a way to survive. On a smaller scale, think of a Maine lake and the smelt populations that support sport fish in them. If the smelt are abundant the sport fish thrive. If smelt populations plummet, sport fish struggle to survive and grow. This isn't rocket science, it's pretty simple stuff.

So, enter man and his efficiencies of modern fishing with monster boats and sophisticated electronics onto the ocean scene and the balance of nature has the potential of being changed rapidly. The herring fishing fleets of the North Atlantic Ocean seem to be rapping the waters of sea herring and fishing regulators seem to drag their feet year after year in making decisions on proper rules to establish a continued supply of such a valuable fish.

These sea herring aren't the ones you might be familiar with that migrate to Maine rivers and streams to spawn. This anandromous species referred to as river herring are the alewife and blueback herring that a captured for lobster bait. They have there own problems. Among those problems is the mixing with the sea herring school on the open ocean. We have not idea how many river herring are caught in the monster nets of the ocean herring fleet.

The ocean herring fleet will say not may river herring become by catch of their targeted sea herring. That's what they say. We have no way to know what damage is being done to the river herring on the high seas because there is no 100% observer program on the boats to verify what the catch is.

Ocean fisheries enforcement and regulations are split into two jurisdictions, federal and state. States control ocean waters out to three miles while federal agencies control from 3 miles to 200 miles out. Business interests on ocean resources have for years had heavy influence on what happens on our ocean. They are interested more on business rather that resource protection.

It's pretty easy to track the history of fisheries management on our oceans. Federal and state agencies have a documented, terrible record of doing a good job. Every fish they have managed has serious problems.

What a silly system. That's like saying to Maine's Fish and Wildlife Department that they have control of rivers and streams but don't have any control on lakes and ponds.

Here's what happens - several state and federal agencies meet and meet and meet and meet; year after year after year without addressing problems on a timely matter. Season after season goes by as the resources suffer from poor or no management. Have you seen that series of IBM commercials lately that shows numbers of employees sitting around "thinking" when the boss enters to ask what they are doing? They respond with a silly "thinkerlating" or something like that and then a sign comes up saying "DO SOMETHING". Well that's just what's happening with federal and state fisheries management except they aren't "Doing SOMETHING".

Captain Doug Jowett is a Master Maine Guided holding a USCG Captain License who charters striped bass anglers on the coast of Maine and Cape Cod. He has been writing outdoors columns and articles for over 35 years in regional and national publications including major outdoors magazines and has six books he has contributed to. He may be reached at:

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