BOSTON (AP) - A plan to protect the important Atlantic herring from what many believe is its biggest threat has been shelved indefinitely after years of work devising it - and even after winning support from the very vessels being targeted.
Last month, federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected a measure that would have required independent catch observers aboard every trip taken by mid-water trawlers, which can scoop herring out of sea hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time.
Critics believed the observers would find that the vessels dump large amounts of herring and often inadvertently catch and kill critical marine species, such as cod or haddock. But trawler owners said the observers would vindicate them.
The New England Fishery Management Council approved the beefed-up observer coverage in June 2012. But federal regulators disapproved it last month. John Bullard, the Northeast's top federal fishing regulator, said that it amounted to an unfunded mandate and that the council should have known that before it voted.
"We don't have that money," Bullard said. "It's like requiring us to do something that we can't do."
It's a lot of fuss over a fish that's no more than a foot long, sells for about 15 cents a pound and is caught mainly as bait for more coveted species, such as lobster.
In the ecosystem, though, herring are a key prey food for everything from whales to striped bass to seabirds. That leaves a host of groups passionately interested in their good health: recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and whale-watch boat owners, among others.
NOAA's decision riled a few of them and particularly stung some on the New England council.
Council member Tom Dempsey called it a "slap in the face," and council Chairman Rip Cunningham wrote Bullard on Aug. 1 that the supposed partnership between their agencies was dysfunctional.
"To steal a phrase from P.J. O'Rourke, where we are now is 'like giving car keys and whiskey to teenagers,'" he wrote. "There's gonna be a crash."
Worse, said Steve Weiner, a Maine harpoon tuna fisherman, the trawlers now won't be held accountable, leaving herring and other struggling species vulnerable to them.
"I believe it puts at risk the herring, and all the other fish that are flocking to the herring to eat," he said.
Anecdotal stories abound about the ability of mid-water trawlers - which can be as long as 165 feet - to clear out areas of ocean. But trawler owners say their critics seem impervious to the lack of evidence of their charges.
"I've seen a lot of fish going on boats and off boats and I find their allegations to be, I don't even know the right word. Outlandish. Highly exaggerated," said Mary Beth Tooley, of the O'Hara Corp. in Rockland, Maine.
Tooley, who is also a council member, supported the observer requirement but with payment shared between the industry and NOAA. A target of $325 per day from the industry was set, but the observers cost more than that. Bullard estimated annual costs of about $2.5 million and said even if the industry kicked in the target amount, his agency would be left on the hook for $2 million it doesn't have.
Dempsey said NOAA seemed to lack the will to find a way to enact a clear council priority and the centerpiece of the long-awaited plan, even after the herring industry finally was willing to accept more observers.
Roger Fleming, of the environmental legal group Earthjustice, noted that a team that was supposed to work to find a way to fund observers met just once since the council vote and that NOAA took 13 long months to make its final decision.
"This is fairly absurd, even by government standards," he said.
Bullard rejected the charge that his agency was disengaged. He said that before the June vote the agency repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of funding for added observers, including in four letters over three years. In a letter to Cunningham dated Thursday, Bullard also said his staff often expresses concerns no one likes to hear, and the council often disregards them.
Bullard added that he knows the council is frustrated, but increasing observer coverage for mid-water trawlers isn't a dead issue.
"We're not giving up on this," he said.