Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Herring Rally in Rivers but Still Suffer at Sea

Silhouette of an alewife swimming through a fish passage on Long Island.

On April 6, on Long Island, a video monitor in a special chute of water called a fish passage captured a brief but historic image: the silhouette of an alewife swimming through from the Carlls River to Argyle Lake. A dam built near the near the town of Babylon, NY, had prevented these fish from reaching spawning areas upstream since the 1800s. The little alewife in this picture was the first to swim that route in more than 100 years.

Similar stories are playing out across the New England coast as years of effort to bring down antiquated dams, install fish passages, and improve stream habitat bears fruit in the form of returning fish—alewives and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring. Rogers Lake, near Old Lyme, CT, will soon have its first river herring run in a century thanks to a fish passage, and dignitaries will gather Friday to celebrate a restored stretch of Town Brook in Plymouth, MA.

This progress is possible because countless hours of volunteer effort and millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in streams to try to help river herring. But as we celebrate these victories in rivers it’s important that we not lose sight of the larger reality of what’s happening with river herring, which, despite their name, spend most of their lives at sea. Populations of these fish were brought to historic lows due to damage in both parts of their life cycle, a deadly combination of dams and pollution in streams and overfishing at sea. And scientists say what’s happening at sea continues to undermine the good work being done to improve conditions in rivers.

Recent studies have concluded that “restoration efforts such as fishway projects…have largely failed” to restore river herring populations. The scientists found that “a major emerging concern is bycatch in marine fisheries, which overlaps geographically with regions we found to be declining most precipitously.” In a statement, the study’s lead author said, “It’s looking more and more like offshore by-catch could be playing a role in preventing the recovery of these populations.”

It’s estimated that millions of river herring are killed each year along the Atlantic Coast as “bycatch,” the incidental catch of vessels targeting other fish such as Atlantic herring or mackerel. Massive nets are towed by midwater trawlers of the Atlantic herring fleet, some of the largest vessels working our waters. Yet we don’t even have an accurate account of the damage done to sensitive species such as river herring.

Most of the trips by these industrial scale vessels have no independent observer on board. Wasteful dumping of catch at sea continues, and even a requirement to accurately weigh the herring catch has languished. NOAA Fisheries, the agency charged with protecting these fish, has repeatedly failed to provide leadership to implement common sense reforms, despite years of good faith effort by a broad range of stakeholders.  

Meanwhile, agents of the Atlantic herring fishing companies eagerly point to the scattered, anecdotal accounts of progress in rivers in a disingenuous attempt to divert attention from damage done by their industry’s wasteful practices. 

The New England Fishery Management Council has the opportunity to make some progress on this issue this week, as the Council considers measures on dumping and weighing of catch.

Our public investment in helping herring in rivers is jeopardized if we do not address the threat in the ocean. The good work done in streams is essentially “lost at sea” when we allow wasteful fishing practices to undermine recovery of these species.

These “first fish” in our newly restored streams deserve a second chance to return.


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