A Small Fish's Woes Threaten Eco-System

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When fisheries managers meet this Tuesday through Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Goat Island, in Newport, there's going to be a lot riding on a very small fish. If the New England Fishery Management Council fails to follow the recommendations of its scientific committee when setting the catch limit for Atlantic herring, the impacts on many marine species other than herring could be profound.

The council's scientific advisers recently identified a disturbing trend in the assessment of herring: Underestimating the amount of fish removed each year while overestimating the amount that remains.

To reduce the danger that too many fish continue to be taken, which could further deplete herring stocks at the expense of the larger ecosystem, scientists advise the council to lower the catch limit for the next three years by about 40 percent.

Herring are the keystone species of the North Atlantic food web, migrating along much of the Eastern Seaboard. They are pursued by fish we enjoy eating, such as cod, haddock, tuna and striped bass, as well as by wildlife we love to observe, such as dolphins, seals and seabirds. Whale-watching boats, sea-kayak outfitters, commercial and recreational fishermen — all are affected when local areas become depleted of herring, because many of the species important to them suffer as well.

This is not the first time that herring have been in trouble. Industrial-scale fishing by foreign trawlers in the 1970s caused herring stocks to collapse, contributing to a cascade of other collapsing fish stocks, including the iconic Atlantic cod. Herring eventually recovered when foreign fleets were restricted, until a new U.S. fleet of industrial trawlers took their place over the last decade.

These vessels are the largest and most technically advanced in the region, employing the most potentially destructive fishing gear: 2.5-inch mesh nets as big as a football field and six stories high. They can wipe out entire schools of herring in one tow, along with an undetermined amount of other fish and marine mammals caught and killed in the nets, only to be discarded as “bycatch.” The fishing power of these industrial ships isn't needed in New England, which boasts a traditional fleet that has fished for herring and groundfish, such as cod and haddock, with less destructive gear for over 400 years.

An inadequate catch-monitoring program for these industrial trawlers has made it difficult to accurately predict population sizes and the rates at which herring are being fished. To alleviate the scientific uncertainty causing the decrease in catch limits, we need to quickly put in place a comprehensive monitoring program that will tell us what is caught and what is thrown back overboard dead or dying.

Then, instead of basing catch levels on what we don't know, we could set limits based on what we do know. All it will take is common sense: Increase the number of observers on herring vessels at sea, let the observers sample all the fish caught, and weigh and certify the catch on land.

Besides establishing catch levels, the council will also set its work priorities for 2010 at its upcoming meeting. It must make monitoring of the industrial herring fleet a priority. For without a robust monitoring program, the fishery cannot be managed.

The herring off our shores provide a vital food source for other fish and also for the birds and marine mammals that indicate a healthy ocean. All of us, from fishermen to consumers to recreational participants, want to ensure the long-term health of herring populations. The careful application of sound science and a better monitoring program will reduce the uncertainty in this fishery, and keep us from taking gambles when so much is at stake.

Peter Baker directs the Pew Environment Group's Atlantic herring campaign in New England and is the director of Herring Alliance.