A Sign of Spring: Welcome Home, River Herring

Historically, river herring have played a significant role economically, culturally and ecologically along the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

From the 1800s to the 1960s, fishing for river herring was a thriving industry. Generations have watched the magic of nature as hundreds of thousands of fish migrate up rivers and streams to spawn. And larger fish, birds and mammals—ospreys, herons, bald eagles, whales, harbor seals, river otters, Atlantic cod, striped bass and bluefin tuna—continue to depend on river herring for food.

Unfortunately, river herring populations are at historical lows (PDF) and have shown little sign of recovery, despite considerable habitat restoration and increasingly restrictive regulations on in-river fishing. Bycatch of river herring in industrial ocean fisheries may be largely to blame. Bycatch is sea life unintentionally caught and often killed by vessels fishing for other species. This bycatch may be a significant threat to the survival and recovery of river herring.

Our work in Northeast fisheries advocates the need for better regulation and monitoring (PDF) of industrial fishing. By restoring river herring populations, we can protect an entire ecosystem.

Photo Essay: Passage of the River Herring

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Alewife and blueback herring (collectively known as river herring) are small, schooling migratory fish that live most of their life at sea but return to home rivers to spawn each year, much like salmon.

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 River herring play an important ecological role in rivers and ocean waters, providing a crucial source of food for wildlife such as striped bass, trout, cod, osprey, herons, cormorants, otters, seals and whales.

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River herring fisheries have a rich tradition in American culture dating to the early colonists, who learned from Native Americans their importance as food and fertilizer. River herring–and their cousin, American shad–were once common along the Atlantic coast, and many towns still celebrate their arrival each spring with festivals.

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The once-abundant river herring populations have fallen to critically low levels, with some herring runs in decline by 95 percent or more.

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River herring were designated as a “species of concern” in 2006 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which identifies species at risk and in need of protection. Additionally, four Atlantic coast states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and North Carolina) now prohibit the capture of river herring. Similar bans are being considered in other states.

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 A combination of factors has contributed to the decline of river herring, including overharvest by in-river fisheries, the construction of migration-blocking dams and water pollution. Recovery efforts have focused primarily on restoration of habitat, such as removal of dams or installation of fish ladders, which have been successful in restoring fish passage to historic spawning grounds.

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 A new threat to river herring remains largely unmonitored and unregulated:  bycatch in ocean fisheries. For example, vessels fishing for Atlantic herring–a similar species that lives only at sea–take roughly 3.3 million river herring as bycatch every year.

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Data show that hundreds of thousands of river herring can be scooped up in a single tow by industrial-scale vessels fishing for Atlantic herring, with the potential of wiping out entire river herring runs.

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To address these bycatch problems, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and New England Fishery Management Council need to implement comprehensive at-sea monitoring and a river herring bycatch cap for the Atlantic herring, mackerel and squid fleets. This fall, fishery managers will be making crucial decisions that could achieve these goals.

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 Volunteers gather each spring to help count returning river herring. Find out how you can help:

  • Fishery managers need to hear from you. Please contact us at info@herringalliance.org to find out how you can help.
  • Take part in river herring restoration efforts this spring and summer. Connect with a local watershed group and participate in its annual herring count or river cleanup.

Your participation will ensure continued progress in bringing back these important river herring runs.