Empty Rivers: The Decline of River Herring and the Need to Reduce Mid-water Trawl Bycatch
Over the past two decades, populations of river herring along the Atlantic coast have declined by more than 95 percent. At the Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River, the number of river herring passing each year to spawn declined from 630,000 fish in 1985 to only 21 in 2006. On the St. Croix River, running through Maine and Canada, alewife runs declined from a high of 2,624,700 fish in 1987 to a low of 22 in 2005. To the south, the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania also saw an alarmingly low return of only four river herring in 2005, down from hundreds of thousands in previous decades.
The dramatic declines of river herring returning to spawn each year is coupled with a crashing fishery, which has declined by 99 percent over the last 50 years. Landings peaked between 1950 and 1970 at 40 to 65 million pounds and hit record low levels in 2005 of under 700,000 pounds.
We are witnessing the disappearance of river herring. Until now, restoration efforts have focused on protecting essential spawning and nursery habitats, removing dams and other structures that impede fish passage, and setting limits for the river herring fisheries.