New England Fisheries

Growing concern for the status of river herring

Roger Fleming is an attorney with Earthjustice. Roger has been working in fisheries law in New England and Washington, D.C. since 2001. He is an expert on the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) and related fisheries laws.

River herring return to their natal rivers to spawn each spring. (Photo credit: Mike Laptew)

Alewife and blueback herring (known together as river herring) nurture the marine and freshwater ecosystem as food for many mammals, birds and other fish. They are also harvested in certain rivers as food or bait. The precipitous decline of river herring is made clear by fish counts and commercial landings records. From 1950 to 1970, the catch averaged over 50 million pounds per year; while in the last decade an average of just over one million pounds has been caught, a plunge of 98 percent. Meanwhile, in individual rivers where millions once swam, river herring number in the mere thousands, or even hundreds.


On August 1, 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to have alewife and blueback herring listed as “threatened species” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). A threatened listing means that without substantial intervention, river herring are likely to become endangered and eventually extinct throughout all or significant portions of their ranges, which includes rivers, tributaries and ocean waters stretching from Maine to South Carolina.

The petition highlights threats from overfishing, dam construction, water pollution, and in ocean waters from large industrial trawlers fishing for sea herring and mackerel. These trawlers indiscriminately scoop up and kill river herring while targeting other fish. Climate change is also compounding the river herring’s plight, since they depend on subtle cues of temperature and chemistry for survival.

The fisheries service now has 90 days to determine if the petition makes the case that a “threatened” listing may be warranted. If it agrees, then it will have another year to decide if it will list river herring. If listed, the petition argues river herring need the type of comprehensive management and protection afforded by the ESA, which includes an official recovery plan with new measures for reducing accidental river herring catch in ocean waters, as well as habitat protection.

We will keep you posted on the status of this petition and opportunities for public comment.

In a separate but very closely related development, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission advanced a plan to provide some protection for river herring in federal waters. The commission manages river herring in state waters, but last week they reviewed nine options for protecting river herring in U.S. waters developed by federal fisheries managers at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Across New England, dedicated volunteers help lift river herring over dams so the fish can access ponds upstream to spawn and maintain their struggling populations. (Photo credit: Bill McWha)

Acting in an advisory capacity, the commissioners agreed that it was premature to eliminate any options, and that a diversity of options should be analyzed and distributed for public comment. The nine options include improved vessel reporting and monitoring by onboard observers, mortality caps for accidental river herring catch, mesh restrictions, and the designation of river herring as a “stock” of fish that must be managed as part of the mackerel fishery.

The Mid-Atlantic Council will now decide whether all nine options will receive further analysis and public comment. The public should have an opportunity in November to review and comment on the proposed river herring protections.


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