The Remarkable Journey of River Herring

River HerringAlewives and bluebacks—also called river herring—start their life journeys in ponds, rivers, and coastal waters. As juveniles, they move out to deeper ocean waters and mix with other small schooling fish such as Atlantic herring and mackerel. But once mature, river herring retrace their routes each year to spawn where they hatched.

In this journey, river herring face many threats, but none so remarkable as the invisible border between state and federal waters—and state and federal protections—on the Atlantic coast, three miles offshore.

On the shore side of this border, each state has to declare a fishing moratorium on river herring by 2012, unless it has a fishery plan that has been certified as sustainable. Eleven of 14 states on the Atlantic coast do not have such a plan; if by Jan. 1 they still do not, no one in these states, including commercial and recreational fishermen, will be able to possess alewives and bluebacks. The rest took this precautionary step years ago, closing traditional fisheries on their own initiative.

In federal waters, three miles to 200 miles off the coast, no regulations exist on the catch of river herring, which are often ensnared by midwater trawlers that fish for Atlantic herring and mackerel. These vessels, up to 165 feet long, are the largest on the East Coast, with football field-size nets that can capture 500,000 pounds of sea life in one tow.

Fortunately, the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council are considering measures that could provide some protections for river herring in federal waters , including better monitoring by federal observers on fishing boats and stronger rules that reduce the accidental catch of marine life.

Both Councils have been examining which provisions should be advanced for public comment, and the New England Council advanced all options to protect herring. The votes on the proposals themselves will take place early next year. The Pew Environment Group will continue to track these proposals so that this invisible border line in the ocean doesn't continue to threaten river herring.