Opinion

We can restore river herring, but the Mid Atlantic Council and NOAA Fisheries need to step up

Dam removals are allowing alewives to return to upstream habitat. Photo: Zach Whalen

This post was originally published on Reel-Time.com and is excerpted here; click here for the full version of the post. Captain John McMurray is a recreational charter boat captain and voting member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

If you’ve been lucky enough to be there when river herring (bluebacks or alewives) clash with striped bass you know why we call them “striper candy”.  It’s a big bait that attracts big fish.

Unfortunately, river herring numbers have declined precipitously. While in 2006 NOAA Fisheries listed them as a “Species of Concern”, a 2012 stock assessment recently confirmed river herring are in dire straits. Alewife and bluebacks are anadromous species – spending most of their lives at sea, then ascending unique rivers to spawn. Out of 24 assessed river runs 92% were determined to be badly depleted. A number of runs have dwindled so far that fewer than 100 adults return each spring to spawn. Last year, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act, and while NOAA did a full review, they recently issued a statement declining to list, not because they didn’t believe river herring were in trouble, but because they just didn’t have enough data to support it.

The cause of the decline is heavily debated. There are still those who want to blame a resurgence of “ravenous” striped bass, which frankly is silly given the two species’ historical abundance and coexistence, and, well, there aren’t really that many stripers around anymore anyway. No one really argues that pollution and impediments to upriver migrations haven’t played a large part in the decline. Yet despite greatly improving water quality, dam removal, fish passages, and other efforts to restore habitat, not to mention state-imposed moratoria, river herring numbers, at least in the Mid-Atlantic, continue to tank. (Note: there are indeed some runs in New England that appear to be recovering, more on this later).

River herring are managed inshore by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). That body has required most state fisheries to shut down; a few continue, subject to very small quotas, under state sustainable management plans.  Yet, at sea, industrial fisheries for sea herring and mackerel are still allowed to kill unlimited amounts of river herring, usually taken as bycatch, and most of that is simply unaccounted for. The building consensus is that a lot, perhaps most, of the mortality is happening at sea.

There is some data to back this assertion up, but not enough to be definitive, and therein lies the problem.  Observer coverage of the small-mesh-net fleet is very low. Such observers, 3rd party contractors that sample and observe catch at sea so as to evaluate the composition of a fishery, are vital if managers are to know what goes on on those boats.

Both the Mid Atlantic and New England Councils, to their credit, sought to address this in their Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish and Sea Herring Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) respectively. Last year, despite significant pushback from the industry, the Councils voted to recommend that NOAA Fisheries impose 100% at-sea observer coverage on industrial herring and mackerel trawlers, having industry share the cost with NOAA.

A few weeks ago, however, NOAA Fisheries disapproved the 100-percent observer coverage requirement, rationalizing the decision by claiming the agency had not yet developed a legal way to share observer coverage costs.  Honestly, while it certainly isn’t a popular opinion in some circles, I believe that if any industry is granted the privilege of utilizing such large-scale gear to harvest a public resource in such large volumes for profit, then they absolutely should be required to fully fund whatever monitoring is necessary to insure that what they are doing is sustainable, not just in a maximum-sustainable-yield context, but an ecosystem context as well.

So where does all this leave us? Unfortunately not in a really good place.  And it’s more than a little frustrating. The Councils worked hard on both amendments for years. The provisions were fully vetted by the Councils and included carefully considered compromises. In the end they had broad public support. Really, we all thought we had the monitoring/accountability problem solved. NOAA fisheries says they will work with the Councils to develop a solution to the monitoring issue, but I’m not holding my breath. Even if they did figure out a legal way to cost share with the industry, if the money for observers isn’t there, it’s not there.

But there is hope. The Mid Atlantic Council is currently developing an amendment that could add river herring and shad as directly managed “stocks in a fishery” (SIF) to their Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish FMP. Doing so would force NOAA Fisheries to manage and conserve river herring when they are at sea, through the adoption of measures such as Annual Catch Limits, identifying Essential Fish Habitat, and establishing joint management plans in conjunction with bodies such as the New England Fishery Management Council and/or the ASMFC.

That said, there will likely be those who will argue that we just don’t know enough about the status of the overall stock to proceed.  But we do know that 92% of the individual river runs are in bad shape.

There will also be those folks who argue that river herring simply don’t need federal management because they are already managed in state waters. That isn’t true either. It seems pretty darn obvious at this point that they are falling through the cracks in federal waters where they spend most of their lives, and where the bulk of the fishing mortality is probably occurring.

Lastly, industry has been arguing that volunteer bycatch avoidance projects are and will be sufficient. Certainly industry should be commended for such efforts, and they may be working to some extent. However, they are strictly volunteer, and managers should acknowledge that they are not a substitute for binding federal action to reduce river herring bycatch.

There is evidence that river herring can come back if given the opportunity. There have been recent reports of recovering runs in New England as dams and other impediments to upriver migration patterns are removed. We should be trying to facilitate that recovery, not allowing large bycatch events to set them back again.

As we move forward with the stocks-in-a-fishery amendment, we should acknowledge and stress that we can rebuild this culturally and economically important fish that has historically been a critical part of the marine food chain. And that we can, at least to some extent, control mortality both inshore and offshore. A stocks-in-the-fishery designation would give us the tools to do that. It won’t be easy for NOAA Fisheries, or Council staff, to make it happen, but it’s their/our obligation.


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