New England Fisheries

River Herring at Risk in New England Waters

River herring make their way up a fish ladder in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Greg Wells.

In the face of rapidly declining populations, increased catch caps loom as a further threat to river herring in New England’s coastal and marine waters. River herring constitute a critically important forage fish species, serving as an intermediary in the marine food web by feeding on plankton before becoming prey for cod, striped bass, tuna, and whales. As anadromous fish, river herring spend most of their lives in the ocean and return to freshwater only to spawn in the spring.

Due to overfishing and habitat degradation, river herring stocks along the Atlantic Coast, particularly in Southern New England, have been depleted to near historic lows. River herring became a federally designated Species of Concern almost ten years ago. Despite these drastic population declines occurring over the course of two decades, however, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering increasing river herring catch caps.

Recognizing the severe population declines and growing pressures impacting this vital fish species, many states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have banned river herring harvests and invested heavily in restoring and protecting stream habitat to support these populations. Despite these diligent state actions, however, industrial-scale fishing vessels targeting Atlantic herring in federal waters regularly capture river herring as bycatch.

While the New England Fishery Management Council has established yearly limits on the allowable river herring bycatch from the Atlantic herring fishery, the Council is currently considering an increase in these river herring catch caps. Raising the catch limits would increase the overall allowable catch by approximately half a million fish annually and more than double the mid-water trawl annual catch caps near Cape Cod.

These river herring catch cap increases would unnecessarily threaten severely depleted stocks, diverge from the Council’s objectives to reduce river herring bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery, and undercut ongoing efforts to restore these populations to healthy levels. Given that the health of New England’s iconic marine ecosystem depends on robust populations of forage fish species like river herring, the Council must refrain from increasing the allowable catch from these dwindling stocks to foster ultimate propagation of the species.

The New England Fishery Management Council’s September 2015 Meeting takes place in Plymouth, MA this week. We hope reason – and river herring – prevail.

 

For more information regarding the New England Fishery Management Council’s September 2015 Meeting, visit http://www.nefmc.org/calendar/september-2015-council-meeting-1.


Mandy Helwig Staff Attorney for Conservation Law Foundation

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