New England Fisheries

One Good Step for River Herring, Then a Stumble

Scientists collecting alewife samples. Their work points to problems with marine bycatch. Photo: Steve Gephard

New science calls for strong protections. Will managers listen?

A recent study led by scientists at the Univ. of California, Santa Cruz, confirms much of what we suspected about the sorry state of river herring along the Atlantic coast and the importance of protecting these imperiled fish while they are at sea. The study concludes “recent restoration efforts such as fishway projects on …dams of large rivers have largely failed,” and that “a major emerging concern is bycatch in marine fisheries, which overlaps geographically with regions we found to be declining most precipitously.” In a press statement, lead author Eric Palkovacs said, “It’s looking more and more like offshore by-catch could be playing a role in preventing the recovery of these populations.”

There is ample science supporting measures that would prevent these depleted species from being scooped up by the industrial trawlers targeting other fish such as Atlantic herring and mackerel. That’s why recent votes by federal and regional fisheries managers have been so frustrating. In the past month we’ve seen one good step forward followed by some serious stumbles.

First the good news. New England’s fishery management council voted unanimously to cap the incidental catch of river herring and shad by industrial midwater trawl vessels targeting Atlantic herring—and it’s a fairly strong cap (details here). That cap, combined with a similar one on the fleet that fishes for mackerel in the mid-Atlantic means there will now be some limits on by-catch from the Carolinas to the Canadian line.

A Nice Start, But Not a Solution

Catch caps are a nice start but will not be enough to protect river herring at sea. These fish need comprehensive federal management including monitoring, enforcement, and science-based catch limits, as required by law.

The New England council missed key opportunities to back up that river herring catch cap with the robust monitoring it needs. A years-long effort to beef up monitoring of the Atlantic herring fleet fell apart earlier this year when federal fisheries managers at NOAA rejected most of the plan. The council did not respond to requests from stakeholders to quickly get monitoring reforms back on track. Frustration is growing, and the council’s next meeting will include an emergency motion to place a moratorium on midwater trawling until the necessary monitoring is in place.

Things went even worse when the mid-Atlantic council met to vote on a common sense move toward managing river herring and shad as “stocks in the fishery.” More than 37 thousand Americans had urged the mid-Atlantic council to get started with active oversight of those species so that catch limits and habitat decisions would be made in accordance with federal law. But the measure died on a 10-9 vote—a serious setback for conservation efforts—with NOAA arguing against it and casting the decisive “no” vote.

NOAA Fisheries should be leading the councils to take immediate action to ensure the recovery of river herring and shad populations in federal waters, but instead they have fought against full federal conservation and management. It’s worth noting that river herring very nearly landed on the endangered species list just this summer.  NOAA’s main justification in the decision not to list some populations of river herring as threatened rested on the presumption of strong protective action by fishery management councils.  Yet recent decisions will likely leave managers in uncertainty about the status of the species and the effectiveness of any ocean management measures, including the catch caps.

At this point, the mid-Atlantic catch cap has not even been approved by NOAA, and the agency has made it clear that, as in New England, the core monitoring and enforcement provisions passed by the mid-Atlantic council will also be disapproved. Without these key elements, the effectiveness of the catch caps will be seriously undermined.

The regional councils and the federal officials should listen to the public and heed the science. Professor Palkovacs put it well upon the release of his recent study: “The Mid-Atlantic states, in particular, need to start paying more attention to managing these species.”


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