Better Late Than Never; New England Gillnetters Now Say They’ll Save Porpoises

Last month, scientists Dr. Carl Safina and Dr. Andy Read wrote an op-ed about how the New England gillnet fisheries for groundfish (e.g. cod, haddock) are needlessly catching and killing high numbers of harbor porpoises. The killings are because too high a proportion of New England fishermen (40 percent) are ignoring the law – the law requiring them to place pingers or “sound alarms” on their nets. Pingers alert harbor porpoises to the presence of the net, deterring them away.

Harbor porpoises swimming underwater in the Bay of Fundy. Credit: Bill Curtsinger.

The op-ed brought attention to the issue. And, not surprisingly, sent the New England fishing industry into an uproar.

The fishing industry first denied the claims, or rather the scientific facts. The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an organization of commercial fishing businesses, replied, “To say fishermen are ignoring the law with pinger requirements is false.” They also tried blaming the pingers, saying it is impossible to know if they are working properly. Others said, “Drs. Safina & Read overstate harbor porpoise mortality.”

Yet at the same time, the fishing industry was saying “we are buying more pingers.” And, “the pingers are in the mail.” An interesting response, as Carl and Andy pointed out, for an industry claiming they are in full compliance with the pinger regulations.

A couple weeks later, the New England fishing industry took a further blow. We (Blue Ocean Institute) downgraded the rating for gillnet caught Atlantic cod from “yellow” to “red” because of the high catches of harbor porpoises. Whole Foods Market follows these ratings and they do not sell “red-listed” seafood. So, the downgrading means cod gillnet fishermen lose Whole Foods Market – and potentially other businesses – as a purchaser.

The negative media attention and ensuing economic loss finally got the fishermen’s attention. After weeks of berating Carl and Andy, the Northeast Seafood Coalition replied to Carl and Andy’s op-ed a few days ago with a different tune. They say “now, more than ever, gillnet fishermen are collaborating to reduce harbor porpoise interactions.”  Gillnet fishermen are deploying twice the required amount of pingers on their nets. They say this has already reduced harbor porpoise mortalities. They will also replace the current pingers with new, technologically-advanced pingers. And, they are developing a tool to alert fishermen of harbor porpoise “hot spots.”

The Northeast Seafood Coalition says they “share a full commitment with scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens to conserve harbor porpoise.” For the harbor porpoises’ sake, we hope they mean it!

As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.



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