New England Fisheries

Inaction on Herring Amounts to Action in the Wrong Direction

Science clearly supports a need for better ecosystem-based management. Image via NOAA/NEFSC.

At this week’s New England Fishery Management Council meeting, the Atlantic Herring Committee will report on Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Amendment 8 focuses on long-term harvest strategies for Atlantic herring, including an “acceptable biological catch” control rule that explicitly accounts for herring’s role in the ecosystem, as well as measures to address localized depletion.

Localized depletion occurs when intense harvesting reduces a particular species abundance to irreplaceable levels in a defined area over a particular time period. When commercial harvesting depletes herring, it diminishes or eliminates a primary food source for important fish species and marine mammals, such as bluefin tuna and humpback whales. Adult humpback whales, for instance, rely on dense herring schools, eating up to one and one-half tons of herring per day. Limited herring availability may further impact iconic seabirds like the Atlantic puffin, which forage on herring for their young.

Localized depletion also carries economic implications. Many fisheries (i.e., cod, tuna) and businesses (i.e., whale-watching) depend heavily on predator species coming close to shore for extended periods to feed on herring and other forage species. If the low-price, high-volume herring bait fishery exhausts inshore stocks, it threatens the predator fisheries and businesses hinging on abundant herring stocks that command significant economic returns for their harvests and operations.

Public scoping comments on Amendment 8 revealed substantial concerns about concentrated and intense commercial fishing of Atlantic herring in specific areas and at certain times, resulting in localized herring depletion, particularly of the nearshore stocks. Upon review of the Herring Committee’s recent investigations, the Council must take concrete action to prevent further inshore resource declines while scientific analysis on the impacts of localized depletion continues.

Understanding localized depletion of Atlantic herring

A humpback whale in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Image via NOAA.

A humpback whale in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Image via NOAA.

In an effort to improve understanding of herring management and evaluate the existence and extent of localized depletion, the Atlantic Herring Plan Development Team (PDT) recently analyzed various data to characterize the spatial and temporal “footprint” of the herring fishery, as well as the locations of the fisheries and marine businesses reliant on the predators of herring.

Given herring’s role as a forage species, analysis of predator fisheries and businesses sheds light on localized herring stock depletion, as removal of prey from particular areas would leave predators in those vicinities with deficient food sources, resulting in predator stock deterioration or relocation.

The PDT identified several overlaps indicative of localized depletion, which support consistent observations and growing concerns from tuna fishermen and whale-watching operations, along with other stakeholders. Due to the dynamic nature of marine environments, however, the PDT concluded that even if parallels between herring removals and shifts in predator fisheries or businesses indicate localized depletion, it would be difficult to identify a direct causal link using the available data.

When in doubt, proceed with caution

Even without a firmly established causal relationship, however, the Council should heed a precautionary approach, analogous to the one it employed when developing Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Herring FMP, which implemented management measures for the Atlantic herring fishery to address growing concerns about localized depletion within the inshore Gulf of Maine stock. In formulating Amendment 1, the Council responded to significant concerns about the nearshore herring stock health and the corresponding negative impacts throughout the Gulf of Maine ecosystem by establishing a purse seine/fixed gear-only area and restricting inshore midwater trawl effort during the summer months.

Despite a lack of clear scientific data linking midwater trawling to localized depletion and overall declines in herring abundance, the Council noted that it could take management actions based on potential biological impacts that could not be quantified. In establishing the purse seine/fixed gear-only area, the Council adopted a protective approach to managing the herring fishery, noting the fragility of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and Atlantic herring’s critical role as a keystone species within that ecosystem. As Amendment 1 explicitly recognized,

Atlantic herring is a species whose very presence contributes to a diversity of life and whose extinction would consequently lead to the extinction of other forms of life…. It is obvious that significant damage to a keystone species like herring could result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to many other components of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

Based on the importance of herring as a forage species, the overwhelming concerns expressed about the health of the nearshore stock, and the scientific uncertainty surrounding the biological data specific to the inshore fishery, the Council instituted precautionary measures designed to limit concentrated fishing power and reduce the rates of herring removal during the peak summer season.

An opportunity to get it right

The Council again faces tremendous concern from a number of fishermen and other stakeholders regarding the health of inshore herring stocks and the reverberating impacts throughout the marine food web and ecosystems, as well as the marine economy, based on localized depletion.

While ongoing data collection and scientific analysis remains imperative for ultimate preservation of the resource, achieving greater certainty cannot come at the expense of enacting necessary protections to avert further localized depletion of inshore herring stocks in the immediate term.

The Council must develop a reasonable range of potential management alternatives for consideration, including proposals for closures or gear restrictions, to address localized depletion issues through Amendment 8 to the Herring FMP. The commercial herring fleet can select among many fishing locations, but inshore tuna fishermen and whale-watching operations have very few choices.

Delaying concrete action now risks materially compromising the Atlantic herring resource, as well as the many fisheries, marine mammals, and seabirds inextricably dependent upon the forage species that serves as a linchpin for thriving ocean ecosystems.


Mandy Helwig Staff Attorney for Conservation Law Foundation

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