Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Can the Endangered Species Act Help River Herring?

Alewives swimming upstream. Image via NOAA Habitat.

On August 15, 2017, NOAA Fisheries announced a status review of alewife and blueback herring, two species of river herring. The review will serve to determine whether either species should be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act was originally passed by Congress in 1973 with the recognition that our plants and animals possess an “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people,” and that many species facing extinction could possibly disappear from our planet forever.

The current status review of alewife and blueback herring is a follow-up to the agency’s 2013 review, at which time NOAA Fisheries determined that a listing for either species was not warranted. That determination, however, sparked court action by environmental groups, and NOAA Fisheries committed to conducting a new status review.

What’s in a Status Review?

To determine if a species is threatened (meaning “a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future”) or endangered (meaning “a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range”), the Endangered Species Act requires the consideration of five criteria:

1. “present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;

2. overutilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;

3. disease or predation;

4. the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and

5. other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.”

In order to assess these criteria, NOAA Fisheries is soliciting information on a variety of factors including river herring species abundance, productivity, distribution, life history patterns, habitat conditions, efforts to protect or restore river herring and its habitats, the adequacy of existing regulations, and the impacts of environmental variability and climate change.

The deadline to submit comments is October 16, 2017. Comments can be submitted via the federal regulations online portal.

A Critical Moment for River Herring

River herring occupy a very important role in the ocean and coastal ecosystem. They are a forage fish, which means they serve as a food source for many seabirds, marine mammals, and larger predatory fish such as bluefish, tuna, and striped bass.

Each spring, river herring migrate upriver to spawn. Traditionally, communities would gather to observe river herring make their strenuous journey from the ocean to rivers spanning the length of the East Coast; but unfortunately, dam construction and other development has impeded this migration for decades. Millions of private and public dollars have been invested in projects to restore river herring habitat, including efforts to remove dams or install fish ladders. While individual rivers have seen large increases in yearly herring runs and spawning events, recent reports indicate that river herring populations still remain at historic lows. Estimates vary, but recent science suggests a 98% decline in river herring populations since the 1970s.

Current management measures clearly are not working to protect these critical fish. For the last 30 years, river herring have been managed only in state waters, leaving them vulnerable to be scooped up by midwater trawling vessels in federal waters that start three miles from shore. There have been attempts to limit incidental catch of river herring in federal waters, but river herring populations have not received the protections they need to recover.

Given the current state of the species, river herring would greatly benefit from Endangered Species Act protections. When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, NOAA Fisheries designates critical habitat for the species to help ensure that future federal activities do not contribute to species decline.  Additionally, an Endangered Species Act listing protects the species from unauthorized “take”—harassment or other harm—that could inhibit species recovery. Given the fast-growing nature of forage fish species, these sort of protections could help river herring rebuild relatively quickly to benefit future fishermen and the ocean and coastal ecosystem.

This is a critical moment for river herring. These small fish have faced many obstacles, many of them man-made. As the ocean environment rapidly changes around them, including warming ocean temperatures due to climate change, river herring are bound to face many more challenges. It’s time that we recognize the grave threats to river herring survival and give them the protections they need to rebuild.


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