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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine, Oct/Nov 2009
River Herring HERESY
Managers aren’t doing enough to save a historically important forage fish
New Englanders call them “striper candy,” and for good reason. Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to fish a school of river herring when the stripers are on them knows the power they have to attract big fish. Not only striped bass, but bluefin, yellowfin, cod, bluefish, weakfish and dozens of other predators rely on river herring as forage.
The term “river herring” includes both the alewife and blueback herring, species that, unlike Atlantic herring (aka sea herring), are anadromous - they spend most of their lives at sea, but ascend rivers to spawn. Their return to the rivers once heralded the coming of spring to coastal communities, and drew predatory fish into coastal waters. Herring play a rich role in American culture, and are critically important to marine and riparian ecosystems, but their numbers have declined precipitously.
Coastwide, landings are down more than 90 percent over the last two decades. A number of runs have dwindled so far that fewer than 100 adults return each spring to spawn. Four states - Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and North Carolina - have completely closed their river herring fisheries. In 2006 the National Marine Fisheries Service designated alewife and blueback “Species of Concern”.
The cause of the decline is heavily debated. Some blame an abundance of ravenous striped bass, but the two species’ historical abundance and coexistence cast plenty of doubt on that argument. Pollution and impediments to the herrings’ upriver migrations have also been blamed, with far more justification. Yet despite state-imposed moratoria, fish passages constructed at dams and culverts, and efforts to restore habitat, river herring numbers continue to plummet coast wide. There’s building consensus that something else is happening, and that it’s happening at sea.
River herring’s demise has been concurrent with the proliferation of a heavily subsidized and largely unregulated mid-water small-mesh-net trawl fleet. These trawlers are huge, with holds that can hold over 1 million pounds of fish. They drag nets the size of a football field with mesh so small little escapes. While mackerel and Atlantic herring are targeted, other species, particularly juvenile haddock and river herring, appear to constitute a significant bycatch. Other small-mesh fisheries for squid and whiting and may contribute to the bycatch problem.
Such mid-water trawlers employ an array of electronics to pinpoint and scoop up entire schools of fish. One tow can put 50 tons of herring in the hold, which will be either ground up for fishmeal and fertilizer, wrung out for oil or used as bait in the lobster fishery.
Because the mid-water trawlers neither target groundfish nor destroy bottom habitat, they are granted access to areas closed to bottom trawls. However, the mid-water trawls may pose greater problems. In addition to harvesting large quantities of important forage fish such as Atlantic herring and mackerel, they also are believed to kill large numbers of river herring that swim amongst the targeted species and are caught incidentally and en masse in the same nets.
Because different river herring runs mix together, and swim with other small pelagic species while at sea, it is difficult for fishermen or scientists to determine where and when the most endangered subpopulations occur while at sea. Thus, a single tow could easily wipe out an entire river’s run, particularly if it’s already badly depleted.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has management authority over river herring in state waters, but not in federal waters where bycatch occurs. It recently issued a press release which noted, “Bycatch of river herring in small mesh fisheries continues to be a significant concern. Preliminary analyses indicate that, in some years, the total bycatch of river herring by the Atlantic herring fleet alone could be equal to the total landings from the entire in-river directed fishery on the East Coast.”
Yet, the magnitude of river herring bycatch in such small-mesh-net fisheries has not been accurately quantified, mostly because the level of observer coverage documenting catch is far below levels required for accurate data extrapolation. Even on those trips that have observers, good estimates of river herring bycatch are hard to obtain because Atlantic herring and river-herring are not all that easy to distinguish. Because the boats are catching upwards of 100,000 pounds of fish in a tow, it becomes impractical to pick though the catch to distinguish river herring from sea herring. Furthermore, observers are often denied access to the catch, which prevents accurate and complete sampling. For instance, over 16 percent of the tows for which an observer was aboard in the Atlantic herring fishery in 2007 were considered “unobserved” because fish were dumped out of the net and pushed overboard, due to high levels of bycatch, before observers could sample them.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) recently analyzed portside catch samples and the limited observer data to estimate river herring bycatch in the sea herring fishery, and found that it approached 1 million pounds annually. A subsequent preliminary analysis for small-mesh bottom trawl fisheries targeting other species (e.g., Atlantic mackerel, whiting, squid) raised the estimate to 2 million pounds of river herring losses annually. That’s twice the amount landed by directed in-river commercial fisheries in 2007.
There is also a large amount of observed but unidentified bycatch which was not taken into account in any of the river herring bycatch analyses. Bycatch placed in the “Herring, Not Known category” weighed a staggering 893,299 pounds, and outnumbered identified bycatch of hickory shad, American shad, alewife and blueback herring combined 7 to 1.
While such evidence strongly suggests that the actual river herring bycatch is much worse than currently estimated, the lack of hard data makes it difficult to prove that bycatch is a problem at all, especially in the mackerel fishery. And, of course, the small-mesh trawling industry adamantly denies that a bycatch problem exists at all. Unfortunately, the trawlers comprise a powerful lobby, and some fisheries managers are sympathetic to their arguments. The Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, in particular, has shown an unwillingness to examine the issue of bycatch in its small mesh net fisheries.
In May, ASMFC overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fisheries Management Plan for Shad and River Herring, which will close all in-river fisheries by 2012 unless a fishery can be proven to be sustainable. Yet, because river herring are not part of any federal fishery management plan, they are not protected by any specific measures while in federal waters even though most of their lives are spent at sea.
Because ASMFC doesn’t have jurisdiction at sea, and thus can’t address river herring bycatch where it occurs, it wrote a letter to the Secretary of Commerce, asking for Emergency Action. ASMFC further wrote letters to the New England and Mid-Atlantic Federal Fishery Management Councils, asking for cooperation in monitoring river herring bycatch and developing measures to mitigate small-mesh-net fisheries’ impacts. But the Executive Director of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) refused to consider any of the ASMFC-recommended actions with respect to river herring bycatch in the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish fisheries, alleging that the river herring bycatch is minimal. Instead of taking decisive action by putting measures in the latest amendment to the Squid, Atlantic Mackerel, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan which would have shut the mackerel fishery down when a certain level of river herring bycatch was observed, the Council merely responded to the ASMFC letter by sending a letter to the Secretary of Commerce requesting an increase in observer coverage to monitor river herring bycatch in small-mesh trawl fisheries. The New England Fishery Management Council, which had been developing measures to address river herring bycatch in Amendment 4 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, voted on June 5, 2009 to delay those measures to a future amendment with an uncertain completion date.
Clearly, the Federal Fishery Management Councils are dragging their feet. Waiting for them to act, if they ever do, is not a viable solution to the problem. River herring are in such bad shape that emergency action is needed to quantify bycatch and prevent further overfishing. The Secretary of Commerce has the authority to take such action, which could result in the necessary monitoring and management improvements being initiated before fall 2009, when the next pulse of river herring bycatch is likely to happen.
A basic framework for monitoring, and solutions to the problem, has already been developed by the NEFMC through its work on Amendment 4. Secretarial emergency action should incorporate the basic framework developed by the NEFMC, but should extend it to all small-mesh fisheries operating in or near the river herring bycatch hotspots, including those managed by the MAFMC, particularly the mackerel fishery, as the overlap between the Atlantic herring fishery and the mackerel fishery is considerable.
The National Coalition for Marine Conservation recently joined with the Marine Fish Conservation Network, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, Massachusetts Striped Bass Association, and 100 other fishing, conservation and science organizations in asking the Secretary of Commerce to take urgent action to protect river herring.
“The number of groups signing this letter sends a powerful message to the Secretary of Commerce and federal fishery managers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic that we want to see a serious effort made to restore river herring,” said Brooks Mountcastle, Mid-Atlantic Representative for the Marine Fish Conservation Network. “River herring play an important role in the ecosystem as prey for predator fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Failing to act would mean more than the loss of a species, but a loss of profound cultural and historical significance for many coastal communities.”