Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

At-Sea Catch of River Herring Gets Long Overdue Attention

Fisheries managers should take an ecosystem-based approach, including protection for forage fish like these river herring. Photo credit: Mike Laptew

Severely depleted river herring and shad have been the focus of extensive restoration efforts in rivers for years—dams have come down, fish ladders and passages have gone up, and millions of dollars have been spent to improve habitat and water quality. Yet the loss of hundreds of thousands of these fish in the nets of trawlers has gone largely unaddressed—until now.

Earlier this month, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council set a first-of-its-kind limit on the amount of river herring and shad that can be taken at sea by industrial trawlers fishing for other species. This represents a major step toward protecting these historically important but imperiled fish.

States have taken strong steps to rebuild these depleted fish populations but prior to this decision there had been no limit in federal waters. The catch limit approved on June 12 means that if the mackerel fleet from North Carolina to New York catches 236 metric tons (roughly half a million pounds) of river herring and shad, it will have to stop fishing. Landings data indicate this catch limit would have closed the fishery twice in the past eight years.

A week after that groundbreaking vote the New England Fishery Management Council took preliminary action on the broad outlines of a similar proposal for the northeast. The council agreed to include shad in the regulation, known as Framework 3, and set the table for a vote on a catch limit at the council’s September meeting.

Millions of dollars and untold hours of volunteer effort have gone into protecting river herring and shad while they are in rivers to spawn. But that effort is undermined when these fish return to sea. Too often they are accidentally scooped up by an industrial fishing fleet targeting Atlantic herring or mackerel. These midwater trawlers are among the largest fishing vessels on the East Coast.

Both regional councils recognize that more must be done to help these fish rebound. Shad and river herring are important food for predators ranging from striped bass to seabirds, and historically their spring river runs supported commercial fishermen along the Atlantic coast from before George Washington’s time to the mid-20th century. But today, populations are at historic lows due to a lethal combination of overfishing, poor water quality, and dams in spawning rivers. River herring are in such poor condition that the federal government is considering protecting them under the Endangered Species Act, with a decision expected this summer.


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