On Monday, Dec. 20, a committee of the New England Fishery Management Council will meet in Portsmouth to continue the effort to develop a new management plan for Atlantic herring.
Atlantic herring are not only valuable as bait for lobstermen, but are a key forage fish for bigger fish and marine mammals such as striped bass, cod, tuna, dolphins and whales. The work of the council's Herring Committee is critically important not just for the sustainability of Atlantic herring but for the continued viability of these other fisheries and tourism-related industries such as whale watching.
The Atlantic herring fishery is currently dominated by midwater trawling vessels. These vessels are large (up to 150 feet) and often fish in pairs, where their small-mesh nets the size of a football field, can be stretched between two boats. These small-mesh nets are efficient killing machines. The problem is they are also indiscriminate killing machines — any fish or marine mammal that is ensnared by the small-mesh nets is unlikely to survive, even if they are thrown back into the water after the nets are hauled on deck. These dead fish — referred to as bycatch or discards — include not just the fish that prey on Atlantic herring, such as stripers or haddock, but also the Atlantic herring's cousins — alewives and blueback herring.
Alewives and blueback herring (collectively referred to as river herring) are anadramous fish — they are born in freshwater, spend most of their lives in the ocean, and then return to freshwater to spawn. The rivers of New England were teeming with river herring up to the 1980s. But in the last 20 years, their numbers have dropped precipitously. For example, until 1986 the number of river herring returning to spawn in the Taylor River averaged between 100,000 to 400,000 a year. But by 2000, that number had declined to 10,000 to 40,000 a year, and in 2006, only 147 river herring returned to the Taylor River. This is a tragedy for New Hampshire's wildlife conservation.
The causes of the dramatic decline in the numbers of river herring include the fishing practices of the midwater trawl vessels. While at sea, river herring can often be found in the same waters as Atlantic herring and fall victim to the indiscriminate fishing practices of the midwater trawlers. In 2007, bycatch documentation showed that three times the amount of river herring was taken in one tow of one of these industrial vessels as returned that year to the Lamprey River, which boasts New Hampshire's largest remaining population of river herring.
The meeting of the council's Herring Committee will focus on management steps to curb this wasteful practice. Central to the success of any management effort must be a robust monitoring program, catch caps on river herring to serve as a strong incentive to avoid areas where river herring are known to aggregate and strong accountability measures to be applied when those catch caps are exceeded.
If river herring are to avoid the fate of Atlantic salmon — another anadramous species all but extirpated from New England's rivers where they once teemed — a critical step is putting an end to the indiscriminate fishing practices of the midwater trawl boats pursuing Atlantic herring. All other efforts to improve the access to and water quality of the waters river herring spawn in are of little value if they are killed before they get there.