In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Ruth & Pat, a herring seine boat, motors out of the fog off the coast of South Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A group of fishing companies in New England is bringing its bid to try to end industry-funded monitoring programs to federal appeals court.

The companies are part of the industry that harvests Atlantic herring, which are heavily fished off the East Coast. The federal government requires herring fishing boats to participate in, and pay for, at-sea monitoring programs.

The government and some environmental groups have said the industry-funded monitoring programs are vitally important to collect data that help craft fishing rules. But members of the industry have argued the monitors, who are on-board workers, cost hundreds of dollars a day and can make it impossible to turn a profit.

The companies sued at the federal district court level last year and lost. They filed an appeal with the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Jan. 28 and are waiting on a response from the U.S. Department of Commerce and federal agencies that regulate fishing.

The monitoring costs are unconstitutional and a heavy cost burden for one of New England’s most historic industries, said Meghan Lapp, government representative for Rhode Island-based Seafreeze Ltd., one of the plaintiffs. The case could have ramifications for many sectors of the U.S. fishing industry, Lapp said.

“The job of the councils and the agencies are to manage fisheries. They shouldn’t be creating unnecessary regulations that shut down the fishery, or kick people out of the fishery, by putting undo costs on the industry that it can’t afford,” she said.

The government is not commenting on the lawsuit because it is ongoing litigation, said Allison Ferreira, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is named in the suit. John Vecchione, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the case could reach court arguments as soon as the spring.

At-sea monitors, and who should pay for them, are a source of longstanding debate between fishermen, environmentalists and government regulators. Herring are one of the most important fish in the ocean’s food chain, and their populations are in jeopardy, making accurate data even more important, said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney with Conservation Law Foundation.

“It is a privilege, not a right, to access and harvest a public resource,” Fuller said, adding that the government’s role is “to prevent overfishing in federal fisheries and that task is impossible without accurate and timely data.”

Atlantic herring are fished primarily by boats from New England, and millions of pounds of the fish come to shore in Maine and Massachusetts every year. They’re used as food and are also a critically important bait fish because they are the preferred bait of U.S. lobster fishermen.

Herring fishermen brought more than 200 million pounds of fish to the docks as recently as 2014, but catch has plummeted in recent years as regulators have enacted tighter catch quotas. A scientific assessment in 2020 found that herring are overfished, and regulators have been working to rebuild the stock.

Last year, the federal government declared a “fishery disaster” for the herring fishery in the Northeast because of economic hardship fishing businesses suffered during the 2019 season. That cleared the way for disaster assistance for members of the industry.

Story by Patrick Whittle.