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Originally published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters



Recent Council action may signal a turning point


In the last issue I noted that the greatest obstacle to reducing mortality on depleted stocks of low-trophic-level fishes (those fish that all the predators we target eat) has historically been a well-funded, influential small-mesh-net fisheries lobby.  During the last two decades, fueled by Government subsides, fishing for low-tropic-level fish (aka forage fish)changed primarily from small boat fleets to industrial-scale boats towing massive nets capable of grabbing up to a million pounds of forage fish in a single haul.  Such trawlers are the largest ships on the East Coast, with nets as wide as a football field and as tall as a five-story building, yet they are arguably the most unregulated fleet in the US commercial fishing industry.  Its consultants are deeply involved in the management process and, until recently, have been able to hoodwink managers into believing their impact on the stock was minimal.   I also said that there was little hope of changing such a culture of industry-influence.   However, recent actions have proven that, at least to some extent, I was wrong. 


In June, despite significant push back from the industry, the New England and Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Councils took decisive action to regulate the Atlantic herring and mackerel small-mesh-net fisheries.  In the Mid Atlantic, the motivator was river herring (alewives and bluebacks).  In New England the focus was on improved monitoring of the sea herring fishery, although measures to address river herring bycatch were a large consideration.


A recent stock assessment confirmed that populations of river herring on the Atlantic seaboard are dangerously depleted, and a petition was submitted last year to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act.  NOAA fisheries has determined that a full review is indeed warranted, and the deadline for making an ESA determination is August 5th.


Just like striped bass and salmon, river herring are anadromous; they spawn in freshwater rivers yet spend most of their lives out at sea.  Out of the 24 assessed  runs (a “run” is a herring population that spawns in a particular river), 92% are determined to be  badly depleted. While loss of spawning habitat due to dams and other obstructions are certainly responsible for some of the decline, remediation has proven unsuccessful in many cases.  Pursuant to an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission mandate, most state fisheries have been shut down; others continue, subject to very small quotas, under state sustainable management plans.   Yet, at sea, industrial fisheries for sea herring and mackerel are still allowed to kill unlimited amounts of river herring, usually taken as bycatch, and most of that is simply unaccounted for. 


Small-mesh nets engulf everything else that gets in their way, and river herring are frequent victims.  Large trawls are fully capable of taking an entire river’s runs of alewive and/or blueback in a single tow.   Many scientists and fisheries managers speculate that incidental catch in such small-mesh-net fisheries is a major factor in river-herring’s depletion and failure to recover.   There is some, data to back such assertions up, but not enough to be definitive, and therein lies the problem.   Observer coverage of the small-mesh-net fleet is very low.  Such observers, 3rd party contractors that sample and observe catch at sea so as to evaluate the composition of a fishery, are vital if managers are to know what goes on on those boats.  However, the industry has thus far been able to avoid substantial coverage from such observers, in large part because other fisheries (e.g. New England Groundfish) are given priority, but also because of industry reluctance to share in the funding of such observers.  Just about every other federally-managed large-scale fishery in the US has 100% observer coverage. 


Thus, while river herring have become very tightly managed in state waters, they are falling through the cracks in federal waters where they spend most of their lives, and where the bulk of the fishing mortality is likely occurring.  The small mesh net industry has generally denied they may be part of the problem.  Their claims that the science doesn’t reflect a river herring bycatch problem are partially true, largely because there isn’t much science.  Yet industry seems to be reluctant to help develop the necessary data.


Given the history of industry influence, what happened in June surprised me perhaps more than anyone.   Despite significant pushback from the small-mesh fleet, the New England and Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Councils voted to recommend that NOAA Fisheries impose 100% at-sea observer coverage on industrial herring and mackerel trawlers, although there is ongoing debate as to who will pay for such observers.  Joint government/industry funding is being considered.  Neither the Industry nor NOAA Fisheries is happy with such a solution, as both sides face real financial constraints.  If any industry is granted the privilege of utilizing such large-scale gear to harvest a public resource in such large volumes,  then they absolutely should be required to fund whatever monitoring is necessary to insure that what they are doing is sustainable, not just in a maximum-sustainable-yield context, but an ecosystem context as well. 


Both councils also recommended that all catch brought to shore in the fishery be weighed, and that observers sample bycatch before it is discarded at sea.  The latter point is important, as large tows dominated by river herring might otherwise be dumped overboard dead before anyone can determine what was killed. 


The Mid Atlantic Council included a recommendation for an annual catch limit/cap for river-herring and shad in the mackerel fishery, beginning in 2014.  Such a scientifically determined cap would require the mackerel fishery to be shut down when managers determine that the cap has been met or exceeded.   In New England, there also appeared to be majority support for such a cap but the measure was jettisoned for procedural reasons.  However, a motion was passed to consider adopting such a cap in a later action, and the record explicitly reflects the Council’s intent to implement such a cap. 


Such rigorous reporting and monitoring requirements are expected to result in more accurate and complete data on river herring as well other incidentally caught species.  They may also shed some light on the extent of such large scale fisheries, and their repercussions. 


The Mid Atlantic Council also raised the possibility of adding river herrings and/or shads as directly managed “stocks in a fishery” to their mackerel, squid and butterfish plan.  Doing so would compel NOAA Fisheries to manage and conserve river herring when they are in federal waters, through the adoption of measures such as  Annual Catch Limits, identifying Essential Fish Habitat, and establishing joint management plans in conjunction with bodies such as the New England Fishery Management Council and/or the ASMFC.  After a very close vote to add “stocks in a fishery” to the current amendment, the Council voted to pursue a follow-up amendment to explore such a designation. 


What does all this mean to us?  Well, first just about all of the fish we target in New England and the Mid Atlantic  eat river herring (aka “Striper Candy”), sea herring, mackerel, squid and butterfish, all species that such small mesh net boats harvest in astounding quantities.  Perhaps most noteworthy are the traditional runs of herring that made Massachusetts and Maine famous striper destinations.   Sea herring inspire some of the best flyfishing for bluefin tuna around.  But once one of these big trawlers moves though, it’s over. 


Since the late ‘70s, there has been a significant movement for US fishermen to capitalize on fisheries for such low-trophic level species.   As a result, large industrial fleets flourished and the bait resource appears to have dropped precipitously.  Ask any fishermen in Rhode Island or Buzzards Bay what happens when the herring trawlers move in:  The fishing simply dies.  When there’s no bait, stripers, bluefin tuna, bluefish etc simply leave.  So long as a well funded small mesh net industry and its consultants could dominate the debate on forage fish issues, they could defeat any effort to put common sense regulations  in place.  But the debate is beginning to change. 


As a direct result of the advocacy efforts of some members of  the New England recreational fishing community and the environmental community, twenty-five members of Congress sent a letter to the New England and Mid Atlantic Councils pleading for action to protect river herring at sea.  Both Councils received over 90,000 public comments in support of measures such as a catch cap.  To me, this indicates that the industry no longer has the largest say over the management of a public resource.  And that is big news.