PORTLAND (AP) – Two Maine-based commercial fishing groups are suing the federal government in hopes of getting herring trawlers banned from certain New England fishing grounds.

In their suit, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association claim federal regulatory agencies aren’t doing enough to protect populations of cod, haddock and other groundfish from industrial herring boats.

Earthjustice, a national nonprofit law firm based in California, filed the complaint on Dec. 28 in federal court in Washington, D.C. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez are named as defendants.

A spokeswoman for NMFS’ Northeast region said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but said strict rules are in place to limit the how much groundfish is caught by herring boats.

Herring boat owners say efforts to restrict them are based more on politics than on science.

The two fishing groups filed a petition with regulators last October asking that herring trawlers be banned from areas that are closed to boats that fish for groundfish.

The groups claimed that “midwater trawlers” – which pull their nets in the middle of the water column where herring swim – are inadvertently catching large volumes of groundfish, known as bycatch, as they fish for small herring using massive nets with small holes.

By allowing herring boats to continue operating on fishing grounds closed to other boats, NMFS and NOAA are allowing overfishing and failing to rebuild fish stocks, the suit claims.

“Small fishermen in New England have made sacrifices to preserve a livelihood for future generations. But the current rules are undermining our hard work,” said Glen Libby, a fishermen and chairman of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association, based in Port Clyde.

When the petition was filed in October, herring industry representatives said critics were exaggerating the amount of bycatch in herring nets and making herring fishermen a political target.

Mary Beth Tooley, spokeswoman for the Small Pelagic Group industry association, said the groups’ bycatch claims aren’t statistically valid.

“I guess we’re disappointed these groups continue to push this,” she said.

NMFS spokeswoman Teri Frady said herring fishermen are already under strict rules limiting their bycatch.

“The evidence we have is that the bycatch is relatively low,” she said.

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