The pair-trawl fleet’s here, been here since early December. Many of the boats—about six total—hail from Maine and Massachusetts. These are big vessels. That’s what has drawn the attention. You come to the shore expecting to see an idyllic scene: a lone lobsterboat working pots close to the rocky shore, or a wooden Stonington-rigged dragger towing for whiting, a small spiral of smoke rising from its stack.
But a 200-foot trawler towing a massive net with another 200-foot trawler? That may be too much free enterprise for most people to watch—more so when a middle school student with a fair wind could hit the wheelhouse windows with a baseball.
They work in teams. They search for fish. When a school is located they set the net and tow. Right now a hot spot has been off River Ledge, the mouth of Narrow River. The water here is 40 feet deep. They set in a tow down the length of the Town Beach, down the Narragansett shore, passing by First Rock, Indian Rock and the Brothers.
Fishing doesn’t get any more state-waters than this. Any closer would be amphibious invasion. The question is: Should the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) care about protecting state fisheries? If the answer were yes then it might be wise to boot the pair fleet outside of three miles.
The New England herring industry seems to always be under fire. Environmental groups, other fishing groups—groundfishermen, tuna fishermen, sport fishermen—band together and apply heat, plenty of it. The herring industry fends them off with lobbying pressure, political alliances.
In pair-trawling, two boats tow a single, massive net which lets them cover a wide strip of ocean. When fishermen talk of pair trawling they almost always use two words—efficient and effective. Efficient because you’re distributing the towing load of one large net across two large engines. Effective because—with tow speeds over five knots and sick electronics—schooling fish can’t get out of the way.
Each one of these boats can hold somewhere between 650,000 to over a million pounds of herring. They don’t freeze or process at sea. They fill up and head in, pump out, and head back to sea. The boats easily out-compete the smaller Rhode Island herring boats, many of which are under 80 feet in length.
Like it or not, herring fishermen, including pair trawlers, are fully allowed to be here—here being Rhode Island Sound and Block Island Sound, inside three miles.
All the pair boats need to legally fish in RI, is a RI general finfish license with a pair trawl endorsement. How much does RI make off the winter herring fishery in state waters? $200 a year—not exactly a windfall for DEM.
It’d be one thing if Rhode Island were their winter hub, if they bought fuel and groceries, unloaded their catch, ran up tabs at the local Bon Vue. Instead, each week, over a $1.2 million in herring are leaving the state. Six boats, all over 100 feet, steam to New Bedford with their catch. Logistically, this makes perfect sense. New Bedford has the infrastructure to handle the tonnage. I get it.
I also understand that nothing is easy, thay the boats have too much draft to get into Point Judith harbor. That the boats might not want to do business with SeaFreeze up in Quonset, a facility that might be able to handle the volume.
So what to do? So much emotional charge coursing through the sea herring discussion—to many complex ecological considerations.
For now, Rhode Islanders need to keep it simple, get together and draft a proposal to eliminate pair trawling from RI state waters. Period.
Leave the river herring out of it. Too many people trying to make that fish the spotted owl of the midwater trawl fishery. There’s so much knee-jerk reaction about pair trawlers, and the river herring is the tendon that causes the jerk.
Leave out the whole argument about sea herring as forage, the soft math of managing food chains: How much herring can safely be removed?
Leave out the owner-operators vs. Corporate America—the Winslow Homer vs. McDonald’s bit.
Huge and worthy debates, all.
But if you’re a RI citizen or fisherman I’d shelve these emotions for now and just politely show these boats to the door. If we try a massive fight, I’m guessing next winter in Rhode Island we’ll be seeing pair trawlers. Protect your state waters from a comic picture of man and his machines.