Atlantic Herring a Keystone Species in Decline

Atlantic herring is an important fish species for both the marine food chain and the culture of coastal communities in the northeastern United States. Larger fish depend on this nutrient-rich species as a major source of food, while communities focused on fishing, whale watching and tourism depend on herring to keep businesses thriving.

A robust monitoring program will create a future where managers can set catch levels based on what they know, instead of what they do not know.

-Peter Baker, manager, New England Fisheries Campaign

Populations of Atlantic herring are jeopardized by an industrial-scale fishing method known as midwater trawling. These trawlers haul huge cone-shaped nets with a two-inch mesh capable of bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of herring in a single tow.

In addition to the immense amount of herring being captured, there is an untold amount of bycatch. This sea life, unintentionally caught while fishing for herring, is discarded back into the sea, dead. Many critically important species are caught as bycatch by the Atlantic herring fishery, including bluefin tuna, haddock, striped bass, whales, dolphins and a cousin of Atlantic herring—river herring, a species suffering population collapses up and down the East Coast.

Poor monitoring of catch and bycatch is at the root of this industrial fishery's problems. The Atlantic Herring Campaign is urging fishery managers to develop a system to monitor the herring fishery more effectively. In order to protect herring and other species in this fishery, we need to implement 100 percent monitoring of the industrial fleet. “A robust monitoring program will create a future where managers can set catch levels based on what they know, instead of what they do not know,” says Peter Baker, manager of the New England Fisheries Campaign.

Only by observing and sampling all species caught in the nets can we accurately estimate bycatch, and only then can we ensure the health of this keystone species—the Atlantic herring—and the ecosystem it supports.

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