NOAA drops the ball on efforts to protect ocean ecosystems

Learn about the regional committments to forage fish:

Earlier this summer, regional U.S. fishery management councils in the mid-Atlantic, New England, and Pacific Northwest advanced groundbreaking protections for forage fish in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Forage fish—small schooling fish such as menhaden, herring, and sardines that form the base of the ocean food web—are the unsung heroes of healthy marine ecosystems. Fish we love, such as bluefin tuna, salmon, and cod, as well as other animals, such as whales, dolphins, and seabirds, depend on these important species for food. Commercial fishermen and recreational anglers also use them for bait. Recent studies show that forage fish are worth far more to the global economy when they are left in the water than when they are removed.

By establishing important new protections for forage species, the regional councils recognized the critical role these fish play in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems, similar to building a strong foundation for a home. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose representatives tried to block the councils' strong support for common-sense management measures before and during all three council meetings, despite overwhelming public support for forage fish protections.


River HerringThe Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council made history June 14 when it committed to developing the first-ever catch limit on river herring and shad in federal waters, where the fish spend most of their lives and are caught as bycatch (incidental catch of nontarget species) in the regional mackerel fishery. The council also voted to recommend 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on industrial trawlers, the largest ships on the East Coast, which can scoop up to a million pounds of fish in one trip. Most states already restrict catch of river herring, in many cases through outright bans on their harvest. However, the limits set in June are the first protections in federally managed ocean waters for these small but critically important fish. Current numbers of river herring and shad are near all-time lows, with populations along the Atlantic coast depleted by as much as 99 percent and with ocean bycatch identified by scientists as a significant problem. (To view both volumes of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission stock assessment, click here and here).

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The council showed strong conservation leadership, but unfortunately it did so without the cooperation of representatives from NOAA. Although the agency approved a draft of the proposed reforms months ago, it changed course recently. During the meeting and in a letter sent just days before, NOAA representatives raised new and questionable objections about the cost and feasibility of requiring 100 percent observer coverage, asking industry to pay for observers, and formally adding river herring and shad to the mackerel management plan to pave the way for more comprehensive protections.

Particularly troubling was NOAA's criticism of the council's carefully analyzed and long-standing alternative to make shad and river herring “stocks in the fishery” and thus subject to management. NOAA claimed that the council must first prepare a full suite of conservation and management measures for a fish species and then determine whether the stock needed management. This position is inconsistent with the basic structure of the federal law under which fisheries are managed. A recent court decision specifically outlined NOAA's failures in this area on river herring and shad management. Undertaking the lengthy process of establishing a full suite of management measures before making the threshold decision to add a stock to the fishery could be a tremendous waste of time and resources. We hope the agency will support the council's decision and assist in ongoing efforts to protect forage fish such as river herring and shad.

New England


Coastal communities on the Atlantic seaboard received more good news June 20. On that day, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) followed the mid-Atlantic's lead and approved plans that could help prevent the decline of the region's river herring populations by regulating industrial trawl vessels targeting their close cousins, Atlantic (or sea) herring, in federal waters that the NEFMC oversees.

The managers voted to require 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on industrial trawlers, the weighing of all catch brought to shore in the Atlantic herring fishery, and a mandate that vessel captains bring all catch aboard so that observers can sample it before it is discarded at sea, along with innovative limits on how often they can be exempted from this requirement.

As in the mid-Atlantic, NOAA previously approved a draft proposal. But during the New England council meeting, agency representatives again raised unsupported objections, this time about the authority of the council to immediately cap the amount of river herring that industrial trawlers can kill each year. Agency officials also argued for a lengthy process to implement a limit on river herring bycatch that could result in an unnecessary multiyear delay in protection for these important fish.

NOAA's representatives disregarded explicit authority contained in the herring fishery management plan (FMP) to create bycatch caps and thereby steered the council away from getting started this summer. They then backtracked, explaining that they would provide a “firm” answer on the council's bycatch cap authority at some later date. These objections from NOAA were confusing, because the agency has previously argued that the council had the authority to establish such a cap. NOAA also effectively ignored the council precedent of acting swiftly to cap haddock bycatch in the herring fishery. Again, we hope that NOAA will support the council as it moves forward to protect river herring.

West Coast

West Coast fishery managers took an important step in protecting forage fish as the key link in a balanced and productive marine environment along the Pacific coast. On June 24, the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced its intent to “prohibit the development of new directed fisheries on forage species that are not currently managed” unless such prospective fisheries are fully evaluated to determine their potential effect on the ocean food web.

The council followed up by establishing a firm timeline for evaluating currently unmanaged forage species such as lantern fish and sand lance and initiated the process of incorporating them into relevant FMPs in June 2013. The council's action is a significant win for responsible fisheries management and is the result of a clear, broad, and deep expression of public support demonstrated by 20,000 public comments; almost 50 letters from fishing, conservation, and sustainable seafood organizations; and direct testimony of people who depend on and enjoy the benefits of a healthy ocean.

We need NOAA Fisheries to get onboard and show dedication to protecting forage fish for the benefit of future generations of fishermen, anglers, and all those who support healthy oceans.

This historic commitment by the council to give FMP-level protections for Pacific forage fish reflects strong support from the public, but unfortunately not from NOAA, whose representatives discouraged the council from taking this approach now. Instead they urged the council to use a bureaucratic mechanism to establish a notification process for new fisheries rather than prohibiting their development until the proposed fishery's effects on the rest of the ocean food web can be evaluated. Now that the commitment has been made, we hope the agency will assist the council in protecting forage fish in the Pacific and throughout U.S. oceans.

Thanks to the regional councils, this summer started out in the right direction for forage fish and our oceans. Pew commends the councils in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Pacific for their bold actions and commitment to protecting the foundation of healthy ocean ecosystems. The councils cannot do to this important work alone, however. We need NOAA Fisheries to get onboard and show a similar dedication to protecting forage fish for the benefit of future generations of fishermen, anglers, and all those who support healthy oceans.