Is NOAA studying river herring to death?

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

If you’ve been following the (mis)management of river herring over the last few years, you may not even be surprised at the latest shenanigans of the NOAA fisheries officials: a delay tactic in the form of a “working group.” This powerless, unmanageably large, and unfairly stacked “Technical Expert Working Group (TEWG)” is purportedly meant to comprehensively address the multifaceted problems facing river herring. But it looks more like an effort to study these little fish to death, instead of taking meaningful action to bring them back from the brink.

The annual spring migration of river herring into East Coast estuaries and rivers historically supported a wealth of predator life, cultural events, and even thriving commercial fisheries. But a deadly combination of overfishing at sea, dams and pollution in rivers has contributed to a 96% decline in river herring populations. Despite removal of dams and other improvements in rivers, the recovery has been stubbornly slow, leading scientists to say that the problems at sea must be addressed.

The industrial Atlantic herring and mackerel fisheries continue to kill river herring by the millions as “incidental catch” with little oversight and no meaningful accountability. Conservationists have joined with recreational and commercial fishermen who understand the vital role river herring play in the ocean and coastal ecosystem to demand that NOAA manage this fish consistent with the legal requirements for managing all other fish caught in federal fisheries.

So what does NOAA respond? By forming a “working group” with over 80 people on it—many of whom represent the industry responsible for killing the fish. This industry has invested heavily over the years in blocking any efforts to effectively manage the species in federal waters.

The back story

Both the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils passed measures that could have helped address the problems with river herring. First, the Councils passed and NOAA is in the process of approving “catch caps” that set the first limit of any kind on the catch of river herring in federal ocean waters. NOAA, however, immediately undermined these efforts by disapproving important measures that would have improved our understanding of what’s really happening on the water. These included restrictions on “slippage” (dumping unwanted fish dead at sea) prior to being sampled and recorded, accurate weighing of the fish brought to the dock, and— the glue that would have held all of these measures together—an independent observer on every industrial trawl fishing trip. Without this last critical piece, all of the other changes are severely compromised—paper exercises.

Now we are left with a limit on the number of river herring the fishery can kill, but no meaningful oversight or independent verification of industry claims to give us a reasonable estimate of how many river herring continue to be killed in these fisheries. The Councils and the many people who supported their good faith efforts are currently trying to salvage a system that might work.

But that’s not the worst recent example of NOAA shirking its responsibility for these fish. Last October, the Mid-Atlantic Council was prepared to move ahead with an amendment to fully  incorporate river herring into a federal fishery management plan, something the federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, says must happen. More than 35 thousand people supported the idea. But in complete disregard for the public, and the facts and legal requirements, NOAA’s Regional Administrator, John Bullard, attended the meeting during the government shutdown, argued vigorously against the amendment, and cast the deciding vote to kill the action, burying the issue for at least another three years.  Including river herring in a management plan would have given officials the tools to do what they are trained to do—manage! But instead, we got the TEWG, a “working” group that has very little chance of actually working.

Toothless TEWG

In a self-congratulatory press release, NOAA characterized the TEWG as a “strategic effort to advance the restoration of river herring throughout its Atlantic coastal range.” But the TEWG in fact appears to be more of a strategic effort not to restore river herring, given that it has been offered as a slow-burning substitute for moving ahead now with federally required management measures that would include biologically based catch limits, rebuilding plans, and protections of their essential habitat.  Moreover, it is not clear how this group will achieve that without objectively collected data on what’s happening where these fish spend the majority of their lives, in the ocean, and where they are still being hammered by the mid-water trawl fleet.

Further, the TEWG is limited to study alone, and cannot and will not provide any recommendations to NMFS or the Councils. In a reference to requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which places certain restrictions on such groups, the TEWG announced on its first webinar meeting that any findings, analysis or conclusions it may draw will not even rise to the level of a recommendation for consideration, much less any sort of mandate.

Meanwhile, the wasteful killing of river herring continues at sea and we’re not even keeping an accurate body count. The public, and the fish, deserve better.

Roger Fleming is a staff attorney for Earthjustice.


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