The state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has proposed new regulations that would affect the use of purse seines, surface gillnets, and cast nets in Massachusetts waters for harvesting menhaden, sea herring, and mackerel.
The proposals would affect all in-shore state waters, including Island water bodies such as Menemsha Pond, Cape Poge Bay and Martha’s Vineyard’s great ponds.
DMF says the regulatory changes will help codify and clarify a slate of various rules and permits that have evolved over time. But some fishermen are concerned that rule changes governing the use of purse seines would have a detrimental effect on important forage species.
The proposed regulations include: a tending requirement for all fishermen fishing surface gillnets to remain within 100 feet of the net at all times; permission for any person to use a cast net for purposes of catching bait species for personal use without a permit; a requirement that any person using a cast net for purposes of obtaining bait for sale to a bait dealer to obtain a commercial fishing permit; and permission for the use of purse seines in open waters for sea herring, mackerel, and menhaden.
Striped bass, a mainstay of Martha’s Vineyard recreational and commercial fishery, feed heavily on all three species. Menhaden, also known as bunker and pogies, are one of the more popular and effective baitfish used.
For years, bunker were scarce. But that has changed as schools have returned to many areas including Buzzard’s Bay. As a result increasingly fishermen catch bunker for bait, often using a cast net. Bunker is also available in bait shops for sale.
Scott Terry of Cotuit, a former Islander and experienced striped bass commercial fisherman, says the proposed regulations are confusing but demand the attention of recreational and commercial fishermen. He said approval would have devastating consequences.
“These fish can be found in vast schools in open water before seeking refuge in bays and harbors along our coast. Through the use of spotter planes, seiners can wipe these schools out while they are still in open water,” said Mr. Terry in an email to The Martha’s Vineyard Times. “At a time when menhaden are just beginning to return to Mass waters in any numbers this would be a tragedy with long reaching effects.”
Mr. Terry said the baitfish are the primary food source for many valuable species in addition to striped bass -such as bluefish and fluke. He said any increase in seining activity would also result in more striped bass mortality as a result of bycatch. “This is an issue that should unite commercial and recreational fishing interests in our state,” he said.
Dan McKiernan, DMF deputy director, said that the proposed rule changes have spawned some degree of misunderstanding. He said there is no change in the current regulations that would liberalize the ability of seiners to operate in open waters.
Mr. McKiernan said there is no evidence that seiners operating in open water are damaging fish stocks. Should that occur it would be addressed, he said.
No new permits will be issued for inshore waters, according to Mr. McKiernan, and Buzzard’s Bay, now closed to netting, would remain closed. He also pointed out that one of the state’s existing seiners is the main source of bait for tackle shops and provides a service for fishermen.
Mr. McKiernan said that anyone with any concerns is encouraged to read the memorandum that describes the rules changes and attend a public hearing, which are scheduled for 6 pm Monday, Jan. 26, at the Annisquam River Marine Fisheries Station in Gloucester and6 pm Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the Radisson Hotel on Plymouth Harbor.
Comments may be submitted by e-mail (email@example.com), fax (617-626-1509), or mail (251 Causeway St., Suite 400; Boston, MA 02114) until 3 pm Friday, Jan. 30.
For a complete copy of the proposed regulatory changes go to advisories at mass.gov/marinefisheries.