Saturday, February 20, 2010

Red herring

More fall-out and folderol over the federal government's decision in November to cut the fishing quotas pretty drastically for the Atlantic herring:

The fall-out this week is that Bumble Bee, owner of the last sardine canning factory in the US, in Prospect Harbor, Maine, will be closing it shortly, costing some 130 people their jobs.

Herring is a vital fish. It's not just that the Dutch and the Danes like it raw, and the Brits like it smoked, as kippers, for breakfast; it's not just that millions like the little ones packed in oil and called sardines. Herring is the bottom of the fish food chain, protein for whales and tuna and cod and seals and, ominously for the lobster industry, the main bait for those millions of traps. Like cod and salmon before it, herring used to be so common that you could practically walk on the water when they schooled (see some of Elisabeth's Ogilvie's descriptions in her Tide novels of the great excitement of herring running in the harbor of Bennett's Island). Maine used to have a hundred canneries on its coast. But unlike cod and salmon, herring aren't yet fished out. And that's what the fisheries scientists are trying to prevent, for the signs are there: big trawlers have been vacuuming up the fish close to shore, before they spawn, so that the herring is pretty much gone from the coastal waters.

The folderol is that the truth, amidst all the carping and complaining, is hard to find. Scientists admit they don't have all the answers yet. The big commercial fishermen say they're reluctant to fish farther out, because of cost and time. Bumble Bee claims to be closing now in anticipation of a shortfall of fish in the next three years. And the little guys, the inshore fishermen and lobstermen and of course the employees of the former Stinson Seafood plant, in continuous operation for a hundred years, are helpless and mad. And everyone blames the government, as usual.

I don't believe any of them. These days every issue is instantly polarized. No one says what they think, only what they think will play well on the screen.

The best available scientific evidence, which the government by law must act on in fishing management, says the herring fishery could be in danger. History tells us that any resource will be depleted unless regulated. So something must be done.

But let's do it so that the big vacuums out there are banned. Do it with the little guys in mind. Be civil and honest. If the citizenry had reasonable discourse, maybe the politicians would follow suit. And don't get all heated up and say the government lost those jobs in Prospect Harbor - I'd bet the real reason Bumble Bee is closing that factory relates to demand and not to supply. There's a reason it was the last sardine factory in the US.

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