By Becky W. Evans, Standard-Times Staff Writer
The new year will bring a 350-foot freezer ship into the port of New Bedford to unload frozen herring and mackerel caught in offshore waters by a fleet of up to nine trawlers that are too small to carry the fish back to shore safely.
James Odlin, president of Atlantic Pelagic Seafood in Portland, Maine, said the American Freedom will serve as a giant freezer, allowing more fishermen to target offshore stocks of Atlantic herring and mackerel that swim from Labrador, Canada, to North Carolina.
The current fleet of large, mid-water trawlers — equipped with refrigeration systems to carry the fish back to onshore processing and freezing plants — has yet to reach the annual total allowable catch levels for herring and mackerel set by federal fishing regulators, Mr. Odlin said.
In 2005, fishermen caught less than 30 percent of the quota for the offshore fishery. The quota for the inshore Gulf of Maine fishery was reached by December of that year.
Mr. Odlin, a second-generation fisherman who sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, said the unused quota is an opportunity for underutilized groundfish vessels to harvest offshore herring and mackerel. He plans to refit his two New Bedford draggers with the appropriate electronics and nets needed to catch the small, streamlined fish that feed on plankton. He said he is “in discussion with several other boat owners” about supplying fish for the American Freedom, which will provide work for about 20 fishing vessels per year.
Eight months out of the year, the freezer ship will chase herring and mackerel stocks as they swim down the Atlantic Coast. Fishing vessels that are too small to carry heavy loads of fish will sell their catch at sea to the American Freedom, which will freeze the fish whole using a state-of-the-art refrigeration system.
Although home-ported in Portland, the ship will offload fish in Boston, New Bedford and possibly ports in the Chesapeake. It will likely come to New Bedford in mid-January after returning from fishing grounds south of Cape Cod, Mr. Odlin said. The frozen fish will be kept in cold storage and later shipped to Africa, Eastern Europe and other foreign markets.
A federal permit will allow the American Freedom to freeze no more than 20,000 metric tons of offshore herring per year. It is not allowed to freeze any herring from inshore zones in the Gulf of Maine, where regulators are trying to limit the high amount of herring fishing.
Critics of the freezer vessel fear it could hurt the Atlantic herring stock, which collapsed in 1976 due to overfishing by foreign fishing fleets that are now banned from U.S. waters. The stock has since recovered, though some environmentalists believe the amount of herring in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Maine may be declining.
Roger Fleming, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, worries that increasing offshore fishing efforts could hurt the marine ecosystem. Whales, tuna, striped bass and groundfish are among the many species that feed on herring, he said.
“My concern is that I do not think we have accurately accounted for the role of herring in the ecosystem yet,” Mr. Fleming said.
Regulators need to set aside more herring for the ecosystem and less for fishermen, he said.
Peter Baker of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association worries about accountability. He wants to know how regulators will monitor how much and what kinds of fish the ship processes at sea.
“We had an unaccountable fleet with big ships and they destroyed the stock,” Mr. Baker said. “We need accountability.”
The $5 million Norpel processing plant on New Bedford’s Fish Island was built in 2000 to process herring and mackerel. The plant processes and freezes approximately 50,000 metric tons of herring and mackerel each year that is sold as bait and food to customers around the world.
Billie Schofield, the plant’s general manager, did not return calls seeking comment on how the freezer ship might affect his shoreside business.
Mr. Odlin said he did not want to speak for Norpel but that he thinks there is “enough fish to go around.”
Built in 1985, the American Freedom served as a salmon processor in Seattle for a short time but “has remained berthed for most of its life,” according to documents from Atlantic Pelagic Seafood. The company has spent more than $24 million converting the vessel to a freezer ship.
While at sea, the ship’s 50-member crew will include five seamen, 10 officers and 35 crewmen who will freeze the fish.
Contact Becky W. Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org
Date of Publication: December 08, 2006 on Page A05