Wednesday at 4:00 p.m., John Bullard, the newly-hired regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) held a listening session open to the public at the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth, NH inviting any and all to voice their comments and concerns with regards to the future of the local fishing industry. However with the harbor porpoise Coastal Gulf of Maine Consequence Closure fast approaching, there was nothing but bad news for our local fishing community to discuss.
Just a few weeks ago, NOAA Fisheries Service, informed the seacoast’s fishing community of a closure to all gillnetters for the month of October and November, meaning no gillnet fisherman is allowed to fish from Portland, Maine all the way south to Massachusetts for 2 whole months. The closure has been set by NOAA due to what they have deemed as a lack of compliance from fishermen with regards to their harbor porpoise take reduction plan. On rare occasions harbor porpoises, a cetacean within the dolphin and whale family, swim into the invisible sink gillnets becoming tangled, often being left to die due to their inability to surface for air. So as a precaution, NOAA began requiring gillnetters to attach a device called a pinger to each net which gives out a high-pitched noise detectable by porpoises and other large mammals in order to deter them from becoming trapped in the nets, a technique that is proven to be 90% effective. However, when these regulations were put into place there was little information provided to fishermen on how to operate the pingers to most effectively repel the porpoises. It’s not always obvious whether a pinger is functioning because the sound is often undetectable by the human ear. As a result this past year, the local gillnetting fleet was determined to be only 40% pinger compliant, hence the closure as punishment. But how did management arrive at this number? Therein lies the controversy.
What constitutes being compliant? How many boats were observed? How are fishermen supposed to be sure their pingers are properly working? What about the 10% of the pingers that are proven to be ineffective?
Though there are many unknowns here, the fact of the matter is fishermen weren’t given the support they needed to be compliant with regulations. As gillnetter Jay Driscoll of Rye Harbor pointed out at the meeting, administration has the money, the science, and the technology to fix this, the fishermen are not, and now they are left to pay the price, a price they are more than likely unable to afford.
Rather than fighting the harbor porpoise closure altogether, the National Seafood Coalition proposed an alternate closure in the Spring of 2013 for the months of February and March, a time when there are still plenty of harbor porpoises around and the economic impact would not be as drastic. It was quickly rejected by NOAA Fisheries.
Not only will the fishermen be impacted, but the infrastructure of the system as a whole will take a hit, establishments such as the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative. With this closure in place, there will be an estimated loss of 3 million dollars, both directly and indirectly, to our local communities, however our NH fishermen will be paying the ultimate price. For the 20 or so gillnetters left in New Hampshire, October and November is when the they make approximately 40% of their profits due to the increase in fish present that time of year; the remainder of the year is spent working to cover the costs of operating a fishing vessel.
That being said, are porpoises really at the heart of this closure?
If in fact they’re really looking for a way to protect stocks and cut back on fishing, closing fishing to gillnetters is not the answer. Removing one set of gear only makes room for other types of gear types to replace them. There’s already talk circulating throughout the fleet of other boats foreign to our 30 square miles off the coast of New Hampshire, moving in with hopes of scooping up the excess, previously our local gillnetters profits. Not to mention, these boats that will be invading our waters are boats that have rarely, if ever, fished here before. They don’t know or care for these waters the way our local NH fishermen do, because they weren’t born and raised here, and their livelihoods don’t depend on these waters.
Regardless the seacoast’s gillnet fishermen have been left stunned. Many fishermen have said that they hadn’t even caught a single porpoise within their nets all last year. It’s hard to imagine being so harshly punished for something you haven’t done.
We’re talking about these people’s livelihoods:
“What is the objective of the agency? Is it to protect harbor porpoises or is it to maximize the punishment for the industry.”
People want to talk about the future of fishing;
well folks, the end of the line, just may be in sight.
Read more about Wednesday nights meeting in the Union Leader here.