PORTLAND (AP) – The nine dead whales and around 50 dead harbor seals that have washed up on Maine’s coast in the last two months are bringing more attention to the state’s fishing boats.

The fishing fleet searches the Gulf of Maine for herring, the small silvery fish used to bait lobster traps and canned as sardines.

Federal investigators say there no conclusive evidence yet of what killed the mammals. But some suspect the whales and seals were caught in the paths of the trawlers’ large nets, which may have also removed too many herring from the waters and denied the mammals a key food source.

That is putting pressure on officials to put government observers on the boats and to perhaps ban trawlers from operating in coastal waters.

Members of the herring industry say the trawlers are being wrongly blamed for everything from declining tuna catches to the dead whales because they are newcomers.

Herring is a primary food source for fish and marine mammals. It is virtually irreplaceable to Maine’s $200 million lobster industry, which uses more than 55,000 tons of herring a year. Until the mid-1990s, New England fishermen caught most herring by encircling them in a net called a purse seine when they came to the surface at night to feed.

But the industry expanded and invested in new technology during the last five years as government agencies declared herring an abundant and “underutilized” species.

Now there are a handful of purse seiners left, and about a dozen large trawlers that sometimes drag nets in pairs for peak efficiency.

“Whatever is in their path is going to get caught,” said Rich Ruais of East Coast Tuna Association, an industry group representing tuna fishermen. The fact that the appearance of dead whales coincided with the activities of the herring fleet raises legitimate questions, he says.

Tuna fishermen have already been pushing for banning the trawlers in coastal waters, saying they are so efficient at catching schools of herring that the fish have disappeared from some fishing grounds.

Regulators are now looking hard at the trawlers, partly because of the political pressure but also because of increasing doubts about how many herring there are in the Gulf of Maine and offshore on Georges Bank.

The New England Fishery Management Council is drafting new rules for the herring fishery that will be adopted next year. One of the most contentious pieces is a proposal to prohibit midwater trawlers from the inshore region of the Gulf of Maine.

AP-ES-10-27-03 0215EST

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