Fishing method eyed in mammals’ deaths
By Beth Daley - Globe Staff
The Boston Globe
4th October 2003
A controversial fishing method in which a giant net is strung between two boats may be responsible for an unusual number of dead whales off Maine's coast in recent weeks, including two animals that appear to have been lanced by humans, say critics of the technique.
State and federal officials say they have no suspects in the deaths of at least four and as many as seven minke whales since Sept. 13, including one that had a square patch cut out of its abdomen and another that appeared to have some type of puncture wound. Such injuries would be consistent with fishermen attempting to sink an animal to hide evidence that it got caught in fishing gear.
There has also been a perplexing series of other strange deaths of marine mammals, although it is not clear what killed them. Maine officials are investigating an unusually large number of harbor seal deaths in recent months, including some that had gunshot wounds. In the last three days a dead beaked whale washed up in Kennebunk and a dead humpback whale was spotted offshore.
Maine officials met with a small group of herring fishermen this week to discuss whether their nets, which can stretch 150 feet or more between the two boats, could be catching marine mammals, which are protected under federal law. The fishermen deny catching many marine mammals, despite the fact that regulators found a live seal in a pair trawling net that was illegally fishing in state waters just last week.
"Pair trawling" is an efficient way to catch herring in New England and has risen in popularity in recent years. Used by about two boats in 1999, it was used by 12 in 2001. Environmentalists have attacked the practice in the United States and Europe because so many dolphins and other marine mammals are caught in the same net with the fish.
"It's impossible to think they aren't catching everything that is feeding on the herring," said Rich Ruais, executive director of East Coast Tuna Association. His fishing group successfully helped ban tuna pair trawling in the 1990s off New England because too many tuna were being taken and there were too many other species being caught in the nets. Pair trawling is also banned in New England for fish that swim near the bottom, such as cod, but not herring, which swim at middle depths.
"It's circumstantial evidence so far, but these whales are washing up in the same areas that were fished intensively this summer for herring by these pair trawlers," Ruais said.
State officials declined to comment yesterday, though two sources with knowledge of the herring industry confirmed the meeting between the state and herring groups took place Monday -- and said it was because of strong evidence that the pair trawlers might be to blame. Last week, state Department of Marine Resources director George Lapointe said he was determined to figure out why all the whales and seals died.
State Department of Marine Resources management coordinator Terry Stockwell said little is known about the seal deaths, other than there has been an unusually large number of them off Cape Elizabeth and Bristol, and some near Bristol were found with gunshot wounds. There is no evidence who or what killed the seals, Stockwell said.
Federal wildlife officials generally don't punish fishermen for accidentally catching marine mammals, though it's illegal. However, they are required to report animals caught in their nets, something fishermen are often reluctant to do because it could result in tougher rules for them.
Federal observers sometimes accompany fishermen at sea to count how many seals, whales, and dolphins they catch, but the coverage is spotty at best and virtually nonexistent for the new pair-trawling boats. Ruais' group has been pushing federal officials to have more observers on pair trawlers to monitor catches.
National Marine Fisheries Service considers herring pair trawling a risk for catching marine mammals. But Service spokesman George Liles said money woes prevented them from observing many fishing trips, although they have increased coverage in the last month. On the West Coast, observers are often paid by industry fees.
But a herring fishery representative denied her industry's nets catch marine mammals except on extraordinarily rare occasions and said pair trawlers were not to blame for the deaths.
Pair trawlers, even though their nets are sometimes no bigger than a single boat would use, can stretch the mouth of the net wider and go faster to scoop up the quick-swimming fish. Because herring only fetches five or six cents a pound, enormous amounts must be caught to break even. Most of the herring in New England is used for lobster bait, although an export business to Africa is thriving because the fish are consumed as food there.
"The fishery overall [goes after] densely schooling fish," said Mary Beth Tooley, of the East Coast Pelagic Association, who represents herring fishermen. She said the mouth of the nets have enormous mesh holes to let out large fish. "Our perspective is we don't know much about the incident at all [except] one of the whales had a split abdomen."
Minke whales, which often travel alone or in small groups, are found in most of the world's oceans and are not considered endangered. But they are protected from deliberate harm under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. National Marine Fisheries Service officials say a freshly dead 20-foot minke with a patch cut out of its abdomen was discovered floating off Harpswell on Sept. 13. The whale with the puncture wound, also freshly dead, was discovered about a week later in the Penobscot Bay area. Two other whales were too badly decomposed to study, and officials are still investigating the other reports.
Many fishermen throughout New England are increasingly upset with pair trawlers because they feel they are taking the fish that other fish need to eat. They worry that enormous amounts of other fish that feed on the herring are also being pulled up in nets and then thrown overboard dead. This news comes as the herring population off New England appears not to be as large as believed. "It's a new gear that hasn't been used in New England and needs to have a high level of scrutiny," said Peter Baker, campaign director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.