The collision of fishing interests came Saturday night into Sunday morning, out along Jeffreys Ledge, ground zero for the extraordinarily hard bluefin tuna bite that unfolded in the waters off Cape Ann throughout the middle of October.
As had been the case all week, bluefin tuna fishermen had flocked to the area to get their share of the bounty of blue fin being hauled on a daily basis from the Atlantic Ocean, an autumnal tuna harvest well beyond anything that has been seen in these waters for at least a decade.
But on Saturday, the tuna guys got some company. The mid-water herring trawlers, freed from the restrictions imposed by a state-mandated spawning closure in Area 1A, joined the hunt, looking for their own bite on the huge bait school of herring that had helped lure the tuna in the first place.
“We were fishing around 3 o’clock in the afternoon when they started coming from all directions,” said Nat Moody, captain of the First Light. “There were 10 boats and they started moving through the tuna boats, looking for the biggest (herring) biomass.”
Peter J. Mullen, listed in state records as president of Gloucester-based Irish Venture Inc., the corporation that owns the herring boats Osprey and Western Venture, did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.
By all accounts, including those of NOAA Fisheries, the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries and even Moody, the herring boats had every right to be fishing in the area as long as they didn’t violate the spawning closure by fishing before 12:01 a.m. Sunday and landing any of their catch before Monday at 12:01 a.m.
“They knew very well that the eyes of the world were going to be on them,” Michael P. Armstrong, assistant DMF director based at the agency’s Annisquam River station in Gloucester, referring to the large number of tuna boats in the area. “But we fully expected this conflict.”
This was fishing worlds colliding, part of the zero-sum game that often defines life on the water among those fishing for interlocking, and often symbiotic, species.
The tuna bite had taken on a life of its own, with tuna fishermen flocking to the area from all over New England and from as far away as Long Island.
Fishermen estimated there were as many as 75 boats fishing near Jeffreys Ledge on most days during the run and never fewer than about 50, with vast numbers of landings. Gloucester’s Compass Seafood last week had a torrid run, processing and shipping as many as 20 tuna a day to tuna auctions in the U.S. and Japan.
“It’s been a juggernaut,” Armstrong said. “But it’s all about allocation. You’ve got a bite going on. But you’ve also got an industry that hasn’t touched a fish all season.”
According to NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus, the mid-water trawl vessels had been prohibited from Area 1A all summer, only being allowed to enter on Oct. 1. Even then, the state spawning closure kept them at bay.
But, as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, that closure was lifted and the area opened to their nets.
While he would rather not have had the bite disrupted by the herring boats and their massive capacity to lift fish out of the ocean, Moody said he doesn’t blame them for taking advantage of the short season they’ve been handed.
Instead, he blames the regulators for not instituting more protection for the herring bait schools that draw not only tuna, but cod, haddock, whiting, whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and other sea life.
“This is a flaw in management structure,” he said. “This is an area and a time frame prime for rebuilding, but management has not taken any steps to protect the food source the whole thing is predicated on.”
Moody took his case further in a post on the firstlightanglers.com website he helps administer, with the post describing its subject as “A disgusting display of modern management.”
“This is an area where currently no recreational angler is allowed to catch cod or haddock with a jig for fear of their stocks collapsing,” Moody wrote. “This is an area where gillnetters have been forbidden to fish in the fall due to fears of interaction with dolphins and porpoise. But management thinks it’s fine that the entire herring fleet towing mile-wide nets in 150 feet of water of 5/8-inch mesh at seven knots is a good way to harvest the inshore herring resource.”
He wasn’t alone. Other posts picked up drumbeat of disappointment in the depletion of the herring bait school, some emphasizing the age-old contretemps of big-boats versus little boats, others wondering about the herring boats’ bycatch of already-endangered stock such as cod and haddock and still others accusing the herring boats of damaging the future of the stock by landing great numbers of spawning herring.
Armstrong, however, said DMF’s sampling of the herring landings revealed “no spawning fish at all” and said he expects the herring boats only to be out “another day or two” before they hit their quota.
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