GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 24, 2010

Herring and humble pie

Food for Thought
Heather Atwood

Remember last week's column? When I tried to say that Cape Ann Fresh Catch was succeeding in reconnecting us to fish and fishermen?

My misleading comments and outright mistakes made me closer to fishermen than I could ever be by picking up my weekly fish share.

I learned how knowledgeable Gloucester fishermen are about the fishing grounds' embattled history, how fiercely and passionately they care about the seas.

I met Peter Mullins, "the father of the herring industry in New England," and Dave Ellenton, the general manager and vice president of Cape Seafood, a producer of herring and mackerel.

When I awoke to check the gloucestertimes.com website at 6 a.m. last Wednesday, three fishermen had already read my column, been deeply offended, and left comments.

Dick Allen, a fishing industry consultant who manages the website www.FisheryConservation.com, wrote to me by 3:30 that day, saying this:

"Your article on the Fresh Catch program and NAMA illustrates the dangers of relying on a single source of information.

"For all the good that Niaz (Dorry) may be doing with the community supported fisheries program, she did not give you accurate, fair, and balanced information on the fishery conservation and management system," he wrote. "As a result, your article misleads your readers."

Mullins, a fishing captain and owner of the herring boats Western Venture, Osprey, and Western Wave, and Ellenton, both giants in the herring industry, were very angry with me — and they had reason to be.

With his sharp, quick Irish accent, Mullins clarified more industry facts: 95 percent of the herring catch is used for lobster bait by lobstermen from Rhode Island to Canada.

Herring boats are not unnecessarily big. In fact, there is a limit of 165 feet for any commercial fishing boat in this country, but, as Mullins, Ellenton and Allen all explained, herring boats must be larger than other fishing boats because, for one, herring are cheap — a boat needs to catch a lot at a time to run a business. For two, herring run in schools, so it's also natural to catch a lot at a time.

Herring boats fish offshore all winter, and spend days searching for schools. The boats are therefore out long, far, and in regularly bad weather; they need to be large to be safe.

There are now federal government observers, a requirement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on every boat — doing just what they say, observing for bycatch.

Mullins says his crew likes the observers on the boats because "that way no one can complain." The herring boats must report to NOAA officials when they are going out on a trip, and they must report when they are coming in. State shoreside fishing inspectors meet them at the dock.

The herring industry is run with strict quotas:

26,000 tons allowed from the Gulf of Maine, but that ground is closed altogether for midwater trawling between June 1 and Oct. 1;

36,000 tons from Georges Bank;

3,000 to 4,000 tons east of Cape Cod.

26,000 tons from Southern New England.

That means 90,000 tons a year is allowed to be caught, divided among 10 to 12 herring boats.

This quota is down 50 percent from last year, but Mullins said no one is complaining. The industry is running well, he said, and the quotas are scheduled to be recalculated in 2012.

Mullins pointed out that cod may indeed eat herring, but herring eat cod spawn. Herring need dinner, too.

But an important piece of all of this, a point which Dick Allen pointed out to me, is that the herring industry supports a broad economy. It's a critical piece of the the lobster fishery, but also a key piece of the Gloucester economy.

Between fueling the boats, packing food for trips, hiring crew, and general maintenance, large checks are being written in Gloucester every week.

NAMA, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, which with the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, runs Cape Ann Fresh Catch, is mostly supported by charitable funding foundations. (There are 15 funding organizations listed on its website.)

As the herring boats were described in my column as "seafood extracting devices," Dick Allen describes NAMA as a "philanthropic funding extraction device."

The only fact that everyone on both sides of the argument agrees upon is how complicated these issues are; the ocean will always be blue-gray, not black and white.

Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at heatheraa@aol.com. And follow her blog at gloucestertimes.com/foodforthought.

Humble Pie

1 unbaked pie shell

1 stick of butter

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 tablespoon vanilla

Melt and cool 1 stick butter. Beat eggs. Add melted butter, sugar, flour, vinegar and vanilla; blend well. Pour into pie shell and bake 45 minutes at 300 degrees.