New England Fisheries

Proposed rule a certain mistake for river herring and shad

Often victims of bycatch, river herring and shad populations have dwindled to historic lows. Image via NOAA/GARFO.

We can all agree that healthy fish populations are important to overall ocean ecosystem health and provide benefits to our ocean economy. That’s why we have the Magnuson-Stevens Act, National Standards, and regional fishery management councils to manage our fisheries and fishery resources.

But even so, in New England, risky management decisions – such as those proposed in the 2016-2018 Atlantic herring specifications – continue to be made, jeopardizing the survival of forage fish species critical to the ecological integrity of the ocean. Decisions such as these no longer come as a surprise from the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), but it’s especially disappointing when NOAA Fisheries fails to provide the appropriate oversight.

Proposed rule threatens river herring and shad populations

The proposed 2016-2018 management measures for the Atlantic herring fishery set catch limits for Atlantic herring and adjust limits, or “catch caps,” on the amount of allowable river herring and shad bycatch by the herring fleet. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, as well as the Atlantic herring fishery management plan, are clear in their requirements and goals on the need to minimize bycatch to the extent practicable; however, NOAA Fisheries preliminarily supports the NEFMC’s recommendation to increase the river herring and shad catch caps. This is a clear inconsistency with the law and management goals.

Overall, the proposed rule would allow for a 16 percent increase in river herring and shad bycatch. Breaking it down by region, the cap will increase by 144 percent in Cape Cod waters and by 18 percent in Southern New England waters. There is a slight decrease in the Gulf of Maine cap. To put this in perspective, these changes could result in an additional half million fish allowed to be killed by the Atlantic herring fleet.

A setback for restoration efforts

The increased caps come at a troubling time for river herring, whose populations in recent years have reached historic lows. They also contradict region-wide efforts (that NOAA has supported) to restore river herring runs. In fact, a recent paper from Hasselmann et al. (2016) that analyzed the genetic composition of the stock suggests that river herring bycatch by the Atlantic herring fishery may be negatively impacting conservation efforts, particularly in Southern New England. The authors suggest mitigating bycatch to benefit recovery efforts.

Data indicates that current catch caps, which have only been in place for one year, have not been restrictive to the Atlantic herring fleet who, in 2015, only caught 56 percent of the cap. As of June 2016, only 19 percent of the cap has been caught, and with only about six months left in the season, it is unlikely that the fleet will reach any of the caps. There appears no economic nor scientific evidence to support increased catch caps.

Additionally, most of the observed river herring and shad catch has been from bottom trawl vessels in Southern New England waters – where the most severe population declines have occurred. Yet, these vessels are among the ones receiving a cap increase. In fact, of all the alternative management options considered by the NEFMC, it ultimately chose the least restrictive option for the Southern New England bottom trawl fleet.

A catch cap increase will only provide less incentive for the Atlantic herring fleet to minimize bycatch of a population that is already struggling – in a fishery where uncertainty already exists around the actual amounts of catch and bycatch due to inadequate monitoring. This is the exact opposite of what is needed.

A public comment period is currently open now until July 21, 2016. NOAA Fisheries should use this public comment period to seriously rethink their proposed rule. Rather than support the NEFMC’s shameful recommendations, NOAA should implement final management measures that reduce incidental catch of river herring and shad.

It’s time to manage these stocks based on science, not on the influence of the Atlantic herring fleet.


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