New England Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries Reverses Course On Herring Catch In 2019

Image via NOAA Fisheries

In a pleasant surprise, NOAA Fisheries published a final rule today that lowers the catch limits of Atlantic herring in 2019, specifically to account for its role in the ecosystem. Catch limits were expected to be reduced to prevent overfishing, but the size of this reduction was a surprise because the agency had originally proposed limits back in November that were almost 30 percent higher than recommendations from the New England Fishery Management Council and its scientific advisors.

A precautionary approach

Atlantic herring are a critical component of New England’s ocean ecosystem. They are an important food source for several commercially valuable marine species including bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod, as well as marine mammals such as humpback whales, and seabirds such as puffins.

To address herring’s role in the ecosystem, the New England Council recently developed Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, which analyzed several different ways to determine future catch that would protect the industry, businesses and communities that depend upon healthy stocks, and the ecosystem. Just as the Council took final action on the Amendment last year, news broke that the herring stock had collapsed. That’s why the Council and the public were so shocked to hear about the agency’s proposal to ignore their recommendations for this keystone species.

Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council submitted a comment letter on the proposed rule citing several reasons why NOAA Fisheries’ proposal was potentially illegal. The letter described why the proposed limits did not use the best available science, could not prevent overfishing, and exceeded the advice of scientific experts. Even the New England Council opposed the agency’s proposed rule and doubled down on its previous recommendations.

Apparently, NOAA Fisheries listened, and we are grateful for its final decision to take a more precautionary approach for harvest of this important species.

Still work to be done

Unfortunately, the final rule still does little for river herring and shads, four anadromous species commonly caught as bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery. CLF and our partners asked the agency to reduce the catch of these species in proportion to the decrease in Atlantic herring catch – similar to how these limits were set in the first place – but NOAA Fisheries chose to do nothing. In our view, maintaining the current catch caps will allow disproportionately high catch of river herring and shad compared to Atlantic herring and could even incentivize the fleet to target river herring, especially when bait is at such a premium.

But stand by, as one river herring species – blueback herring – is being considered again for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and a decision due later this spring could change the course of history for this beleaguered species.


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