New England Fisheries

What happens to river herring in 2012?

Recently, we’ve posted a few pieces about river herring (a collective term for alewife and blueback herring) and some of the efforts to help this important fish upon which so much other wildlife depends as a critical source of food.  While there is much to report on these small fish, this post will focus on the changes set to take place in fishing regulations for river herring in 2012.


A river herring (Photo credit: Chris Bowser, courtesy of NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

Populations of river herring are in serious decline across the Atlantic coast; some states have seen their populations drop by 99 percent or more.  In individual rivers where millions once swam and spawned, today river herring number in the mere thousands, or even hundreds.  In some rivers, there are none of this once ubiquitous fish.

Next year, the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC), the body that manages river herring fishing within state waters, is requiring states to declare a moratorium on fishing for river herring as of January 1, 2012, unless the state can provide the ASMFC with a Sustainable Fishery Plan (SFP) and it is approved.  This is significant because, with a few exceptions, both recreational and commercial fishermen will not be able to possess a river herring in state waters as of January 1.

Here’s how the states stack up so far:

  • Four states have previously implemented moratoriums: Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
  • Only four states have obtained a Sustainable Fishery Plan; Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Carolina. As noted above, North Carolina has a moratorium, but it allows some fishing around the Easter holiday each year.
  • The rest (and majority of the east coast states), New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the Potomac Fishery Commission (D.C.), Virginia, Georgia and Florida, have not obtained Sustainable Fishery Plans and are in the process of finalizing regulations to prohibit the possession of river herring in state waters.

Depending on your perspective, this could be horrible or fantastic news.  Recreational fishermen will lose important bait for many of their most prized saltwater fish, such as striped bass.  At the same time, this will help give a key fish, which serves as food for many of the fish we love to eat like tuna and bluefish as well as birds of prey and marine mammals, a fighting chance to rebound.

Of course, this is not the end of river herring’s story.  River herring are also caught in large numbers in ocean waters, mainly by industrial ships that fish for Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel and squid.  Unlike state waters, there are no regulations on the catch of river herring in ocean waters.  But, plans are underway to address ocean catch, and we will have more on that next week.  Stay tuned!


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