New England Fisheries

It’s Time for Action on Localized Depletion of Atlantic Herring

Atlantic herring are an important food source for whales and other marine life in New England. Image via NOAA.

If all of the grocery stores and restaurants in your town suddenly closed, you would need to venture elsewhere in search of food to eat. You might even opt to rent a hotel room in the town next door until local food is available once again. Similarly, if a giant trawler boat scoops up half a million pounds of forage fish in nearshore waters all at once, the temporary lack of food will cause ocean predators to avoid that area. Seems obvious, right?

Not to the Herring Advisory Panel of the New England Fishery Management Council. The Panel devoted much of its recent August meeting to debating whether this phenomenon, termed “localized depletion,” is real and happening in the Atlantic herring fishery. Localized depletion occurs when intense fishing in a particular area takes more fish than can be replaced in that area within a given time period. The resulting population decline is specific to the area where the intensive fishing occurred (i.e., “localized”) and is independent of the overall status of the stock, which may be healthy.

A keystone species for the ecosystem and coastal communities

Herring play an important role in the ocean food web. For instance, Atlantic puffins rely on abundant herring to feed their young, and adult humpback whales need dense herring schools to feed their mammoth appetites, as they can consume up to 1.5 tons of herring in a single day. Consequently, localized depletion of Atlantic herring has long been a concern of whale and bird watchers, recreational anglers, and other fishermen such as groundfish, striped bass, and tuna fishermen.

Herring midwater trawlers can stretch more than 150 feet long and drag hundreds of feet of net behind them, enabling them in a single outing to scoop up hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring—along with numerous other marine life as bycatch. Fishermen and other ocean users have long observed that these massive trawlers can temporarily alter the nearshore ecosystem, essentially leaving a worthless desert in their wake. Inshore tuna fishermen, whale-watching companies, and many other ocean users who rely on nearshore herring stocks to attract predators are considerably impacted by localized depletion in nearshore waters.

Overwhelming support, but a Council slow to change

In August 2015, the Council solicited public comment on whether the scope of Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan should be expanded to address inshore localized depletion of herring. Amendment 8 was initiated to establish a long-term control rule that accounts for the important role of herring in the ecosystem when setting catch limits, including their role as a forage species for predatory fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Comments overwhelmingly cited the need for action on both localized depletion and ecosystem-based limits.

Fishermen and other users described how current regulations allow midwater trawlers to concentrate their fishing efforts in certain locations and at certain times, leaving too few herring for predators in those locations. The Council ultimately adopted a problem statement that recognizes concerns about how concentrated, intensive commercial fishing of Atlantic herring negatively impacts other user groups that depend on herring.

Changes in fishery management have been slow to follow, however. Even without data that “proves” localized depletion with certainty, we know localized depletion is a problem. The testimony of fishermen and other ocean users about the impacts of localized depletion provides a sufficient basis for regulatory action. Local observations are buttressed by robust scientific literature on localized depletion and numerous examples of cases where regulators adopted management actions to address localized depletion elsewhere. By law, management measures such as closures or gear restrictions must be based on the best available science, which does not necessitate scientific certainty or causal proof. Indeed, precautionary management measures are a sensible response to uncertainty.

Precautionary action is better than no action

Here, the Council would be wise to take a precautionary approach like it did in developing Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. Amendment 1 addressed concerns about inshore localized depletion of the Gulf of Maine stock by implementing a seasonal gear restriction on midwater trawling. As Amendment 1 recognized, “significant damage to a keystone species like herring could result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to many other components of the…ecosystem.”

At its upcoming September 20-22 meeting, the Council should develop a range of alternatives to address localized depletion of Atlantic herring and its impacts. The Herring Committee recommends that the Council analyze a range of alternatives including year-round closures to midwater trawlers of waters within 12 and 35 miles from shore, plus year-round closures within certain areas that have experienced some of the greatest impacts from localized depletion. Additionally, at the behest of the herring industry, the Committee recommends that the Council consider a limited seasonal closure of waters off the back of Cape Cod within 6 miles from shore that would sunset after two years.

In addition to these alternatives, the Council should consider year-round closure of waters within 50 miles from shore—an alternative proposed by many members of the public and supported by the Council at its January 2016 meeting. A 50-mile buffer would capture critical offshore spawning habitat for Atlantic herring, and would also counterbalance industry’s favored 6-mile buffer as part of the reasonable range of feasible alternatives required by law.

As always, more science is critical, but the standard is “available” science and the pursuit of additional science should not come at the expense of taking action to address the problem of localized depletion right now. While intense herring fishery effort is allowed to continue in nearshore waters, local fishermen, businesses, and ocean ecosystems will continue to suffer. The Council must take action now to prevent inshore declines of herring and the significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts that follow.


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