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.”


3 Responses to One Good Step for River Herring, Then a Stumble

  • Aaron Dority says:

    Since alewives provide cover for endangered Atlantic salmon when running upstream, the salmon should also be considered when determining the value of a river herring catch cap.

  • Jeff Deem says:

    To My Fellow Recreational Fishermen:

    I would like to respond to the concerns of my friends and fellow Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (the Council) member’s about my vote on the river herring and shad issue at the October 2013 Council meeting.

    First, I would like to commend the environmental community for bringing the issue of forage fish to the forefront a few years ago. At the time, the councils were so deep in the task of restoring our over fished stocks, that we were not focusing on the forage issue even though forage is critical to recovering and maintaining our fisheries. We are not at odds on the need to manage forage. The question is how to go about it.

    To put everything in perspective, you should be aware of the information provided to Council members before the meeting:

    1. Commercial fishermen had already begun to address the bycatch of these forage species by alerting each other of areas where they have encountered substantial river herring and shad catches. High bycatch numbers are a lose/lose situation for these fishermen whether through the time and effort required to sort the catch or because of the possibility that their fishery could be closed if too many of these forage species are caught.

    2. Catch caps for shad and river herring in the Atlantic mackerel and Atlantic herring fisheries will take affect this year. Once the shad and river herring landings are estimated to have reached the cap levels, the offending fisheries will be shut down.

    3. These species are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (the Commission) because they spawn in state waters, not the EEZ where the MAFMC has authority. Through the Commission, the various Atlantic states have ongoing river herring and shad conservation efforts at various levels and the states have recently increased their control of state landings.

    4. Although they have not been formally assessed since 2007, American shad stocks do not appear to be recovering . As for river herrings, NOAA Fisheries has recently found that they are not endangered or threatened and that coastwide abundances of river herrings appear to be stable or increasing. You can find more details at the link below.

    5. “NOAA Fisheries has recently committed to expanded engagement in river herring conservation.”

    6. The Council is “initiating a framework that would improve precision and increase accountability in the river herring and shad cap for the mackerel fishery”.

    7. Additional research into stock abundance is needed to establish biological reference points.

    8. The National Marine Fisheries Service has been diverting resources from other small mesh fisheries to mid-water trawl fisheries in recent years to get better information on river herring bycatch. Mid-water trawl fisheries appear to be responsible for most of the at-sea bycatch.

    You can find the materials we were provided at, under Tab 2.

    One of the fisheries with the highest incidence of bycatch in the past was the mackerel fishery. For the last few years, there has not been any substantial mackerel fishery. Some of the most outspoken groups are apparently concerned that if the fish return, there could possibly be a problem. Council members have not seen any evidence that this fishery will return in the near future.

    While it would be desirable to commit Council staff to study these species, develop a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), initiate a formal Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) have observers on every boat and all of the other steps requested by the environmental community, the Council’s staff and resources are already committed to studies we have requested for other fisheries. Throughout both of my terms on the Council, we have pressed for more and more staff commitment to research and improved scientific data in the many fisheries we manage. The staff and funds are already stretched to the limit and it is quite likely that some of these commitments concern species that are important to you. Are we willing to postpone research on summer flounder, black sea bass or one of the other species we manage? We believe we have a plan that will avoid any major diversion of resources from other projects while also addressing the core data and management gaps for river herring and shad.

    We would all like to have more research and better science across the entire spectrum of fisheries management. The reality is however, that like it or not, there are real funding limits. We are not likely to see any change in this situation in the current political environment.

    I should mention that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that some are calling for would take 2 to 3 years, at a minimum, followed by another year to complete the Amendment necessary to implement the Council’s recommendations. The solution we passed develops a working group consisting of Council and Commission staff, the NOAA Regional Office and state fisheries officials that should produce results much sooner. The Council members’ commitment to the forage issue was demonstrated in the ‘motion to amend’ which changed the original motion’s requirement to reconsider the “stocks in the fishery” question in five years to three years. We also insisted that the progress of the working group be reported annually. These reviews will begin at the June 2014 Council meeting. We are serious about this issue.

    The new joint working group is mandated to ‘seek to improve current management by aligning current ASMFC, individual state, and at-sea cap management measures to comprehensively address fishing mortality throughout the species range in state and federal waters…’. It is not to ‘study’ the problem for another three years a some suggest, but to combine the various efforts under way into a cohesive program to address the problem. This joint effort also creates a new opportunity for the Council to address its concerns about these fisheries. While we have discussed the problems with dams, pollution, pharmaceuticals, habitat degradation, dead zones, etc., we did not have any authority to address these issues because they occur in state waters. Hopefully, this partnership will allow us to present our concerns and have some influence in finding solutions to those problems.

    Recreational fishermen are appointed to bring the perspective and experience of a recreational fisherman to the council and to insure that the interests of recreational fishermen are addressed. This does not mean that they are to damn the rest of the world and insist that recreational fishermen be allowed to catch each and every fish or that the entire focus has to be on their fish. No group owns each and every fish. If they belong to anyone, they belong to every American. With very few exceptions, each member’s obligation is to see that everyone has a fair share of any healthy stock. Council members are sworn to protect the resource first with the interest of all of those that benefit from the resource being the very next priority.

    We are also not appointed to represent only one group and it would be irresponsible and foolish to assume that any one group has all of the answers. We are to weigh all of the information and base our actions on what we believe to be the most reliable of that information. The extremest members of each user group would have you believe that their way is the only way and that to think freely or develop any alternative is to abandon your responsibilities. To be even modestly successful, a member has to respect each group’s concerns and try to formulate plans that work for everyone.

    Please keep in mind that some of the groups that are insisting that we blindly follow the DIES and ‘stocks in the fishery’ path are also the ones that insisted that we shut down the summer flounder fishery a few years ago. They believed that the stocks would then quickly grow to the target level, a level that the science and models later determined was unattainable. They also pushed for severe restrictions on the spiny dogfish fishery when everyone on the water knew the population was out of control. We are still suffering the affects of this fishery disaster as these predators appear to be consuming substantial portions of the stocks we are trying to rebuild. Nothing can be taken at face value. Every request, proposal and opinion has to be both considered and verified.

    There is more to do to insure that our plan works. Two of the most important are the issues of industry funded observer coverage and slippage (the possibility of dumping a net with excessive bycatch before it is witnessed by an observer) which I have recently learned will be addressed in early 2014. Updates will be provided at the Council website, I have also been advised by the Council Executive Director that further details on the Council’s work group approach will be presented at the December 2013 Council meeting.

    You can track NOAA’s expanded engagement efforts at A recent update can be found at

    Please stay involved and hold our feet to the fire on this issue.

    Jeff Deem
    Virginia Obligatory Member.

  • Before moving forward, in case you didn’t read it, here is my blog on the last Mid Atlantic Council meeting (River Herring and Shad Lose at the Mid ) where we considered adding river herring and shad to our federally managed stocks.

    I can’t say I disagree with some of what’s said here. It’s true that “Recreational fishermen are appointed to bring the perspective and experience of a recreational fisherman to the Council and to insure that the interests of recreational fishermen are addressed,” that fishery resources “belong to every American” and that “Council members are sworn to protect the resource first with the interests of all of those that benefit from the resource being the very next priority.” It is also true that “We are to weigh all of the information and base our actions on what we believe to be the most reliable of that information” and that “a member has to respect each group’s concerns and try to formulate plans that work for everyone.” And I agree with the statements about moving on and holding the Council’s feet to the fire.

    Those are all good points. Yet, the response missed the most important point of all: As Council members we have an overarching obligation to uphold the law – in this case the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act – which clearly stipulates that we make decisions that provide for the greatest good of the Nation.

    It is pretty darn clear at this point that large numbers of river herring and shad are being caught in federal waters, and that such fish are badly in need of conservation and management, and if that’s the case, it looks like the law requires that we manage them under a federal fishery management plan (FMP). Given all the data on the species, it’s difficult for anyone to credibly argue river herring and shad aren’t in a bad place. Sure, there may be some isolated recovering runs in northern New England, but they are the exception to the coast-wide trend. These species are unquestionably depleted and are caught and actually sold in large numbers so they are most certainly “in the fishery.” And while they are already being managed in state waters by ASMFC, these fish do spend most of their lives at sea, they are being taken incidentally at sea and they need to be managed at sea; in fact, the Magnuson Act seems to require that they be managed at sea. Yes, both New England and the Mid Atlantic Councils have implemented “catch caps” which would shut down the sea herring and mackerel fisheries if river herring or shad catch met or exceeded certain poundage limits, but without 100% observer coverage (or something close to it), and real measures to prevent net slippage/dumping of catch before it comes on board to actually be counted against those limits, the cap is simply unenforceable. Yes, there are some voluntary bycatch avoidance efforts being made by the sea herring and mackerel fisheries, but they are just that–“voluntary”– they have yet to be proven effective, and are no substitute for legally mandated, enforceable conservation measures.

    While these are all points I’ve made before, the overarching point here is that this was not a case where a small interest group was petitioning for special protection. Managing river herring and shad under a federal FMP seemed to be clearly in the wide public interest, and arguably a legal requirement. So it’s a little bit irritating that the above referenced response seems to paint this as an environmentalist push to do something outrageous. Moving forward with a stocks-in-a-fishery draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) had broad and diverse backing, and lost by only one vote at the Council. The public comment/letters in the briefing book (over 37,000) showed overwhelming support and came not just from the environmental community, but from representatives of well-respected recreational groups, scientists, and even commercial fishing organizations. The only organization that provided written comment in opposition was a commercial fishing organization representing corporations with a direct financial interest in avoiding restrictions on the fleet. (And by-the-way, no environmental group truly involved in Council deliberations, as far as I know, ever wanted to shut down the fluke fishery… and while there’s some truth to the dogfish comment, it’s another red herring as the best available science at the time suggested that a population collapse was imminent).

    Protecting forage fish is unquestionably a priority for fishermen, because such fish are near the base of the food web and support the most important recreational as well as commercially valuable species. A vote in favor of managing river herring and shad under a federal FMP in October, to me, would have represented a real effort to control at-sea catch. It would have honored the conservation tradition of generations of anglers and the ongoing work and sacrifices of current anglers up and down the Atlantic coast to conserve river herring and shad. I do understand the justification for those who voted against it, but I couldn’t help but see a vote to manage them under a federal FMP as recreational priority, and somewhat of a litmus test. And I’ve gotta say here that while of course we have to all work together to develop solutions that work best for everyone, a recreational seat does, indeed, exist to present and highlight, to a large extent, the interests of the recreational community, within the law of course, just as an industry seats frequently highlight commercial fishing interests. Regardless, by taking real tangible steps to conserve and protect forage fish, you support conservation of other managed stocks important to anglers and commercial fishermen in an exponential way.

    At this particular meeting, we weren’t even voting to make river herring and shad federally managed stocks, just to move forward with a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that would have simply given us a full analysis of what it would take to do this, enabling the council to make an informed decision. As the response noted, a council member is obligated to decide issues based on “all of the information” and to give the greatest weight to “the most reliable of that information.” I’m still having a hard time understanding why anyone would vote against a process designed to provide the council with more and better information about available management alternatives. Sure it would have taken resources to develop such a document, but the public made it clear (with over 37,000 comments) that this was a priority worthy of resources. Instead, we now have an obligation to develop a “working group”, which, if it is to accomplish anything, would likely require resources as well—except with no commitment to them. Moving forward with the DEIS was the next logical (and likely legally required) step in weighing all the information, and I thought we had formed a consensus to do just that when we voted to move forward with Amendment 15 in June of 2012.

    At any rate, enough rehashing all this stuff. I think at this point, we all understand each other, and to some extent it doesn’t really matter any longer. Now that the Council’s decision has been made (unless it is legally invalidated in court, where it is currently being challenged) we need to move forward. It’s now imperative that we focus on the observer coverage issue (getting people on the boats to gage what the incidental river herring and shad catch really is). We already voted such 100% coverage last year, but it’s pretty much a given at this point that NOAA Fisheries will say that even with industry sharing the costs, it’s impossible given funding constraints. We will almost certainly have to move forward with a provision that would require that the small mesh net industry pay 100% of observer costs if we are to hope for significant coverage. In my opinion this is not unreasonable given that these fish are a public resource and we are allowing the large scale harvest of them for profit. The people gaining from such a public resource should pay whatever price is required to make sure they are doing it sustainably while minimizing incidental catch. I hope industry will step up and support such a proposal, and the initial indication is that they will. The Council also needs to pass a strong “Framework” to address unobserved dumping or “slippage,” (releasing the net so that the catch cannot be accounted for). Allowing the net to be “slipped” before it can be sampled by observers undermines the potential for the cap to be meaningful; slippage allowances should really be limited only to true emergencies.

    Yes, I was bummed that instead of going with the stocks in a fishery model, the council voted in favor of a motion to move forward with a “working group” to address river herring and shad incidental catch. Because any recommendations coming out of such a working group will not have the force of law. And really, history has shown that Councils avoid making hard decisions unless the law requires them to. With the obvious limitations in funding these days, I can’t help but see such an unfunded mandate in a rather dim light. But perhaps I’m being too cynical here. Indeed, this is a good step in the right direction. Given the fact that the Council will regularly review the process, and the fact that this working group has three years to show results before we consider the stocks-in-a-fisheries model again, I think there’s some real motivation for this working group to come up with something tangible. In particular, I hope it can further develop the catch cap to serve as an enforceable science-based annual catch limit, in the way it would under law. As the above referenced response notes, the public has to hold the Council’s feet to the fire on this one though. And I suspect they will.

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