Big Win for Small Fish: Protections Approved for Forage Fish on the East Coast

Contact: Mary Cappabianca,, 202.540.6685

Portland, ME - 06/22/2012 - Peter Baker, director of northeast fisheries programs for the Pew Environment Group, issued the following statement in response to the New England Fishery Management Council’s vote to approve plans that could help prevent the decline of river herring populations by regulating massive trawl vessels in the Atlantic Ocean. The action followed last Thursday’s decision by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to comprehensively manage industrial mackerel fishing to help protect river herring and shad in the region.

“This is great news for our marine ecosystem and a major victory for the coastal communities on the Atlantic seaboard. The New England and Mid-Atlantic councils have taken strong stands to follow common-sense management measures to prevent bycatch and keep our ocean ecosystems healthy. These are two monumental actions that cap five years of effort that brought together New England’s traditional commercial fishermen, lobstermen, anglers, conservationists, whale watch companies, and others. These different voices united behind the call for reducing destructive bycatch by giant fishing vessels and improving monitoring of these boats.

“However, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials stymied the New England Council’s efforts to immediately cap the amount of river herring that industrial trawlers can kill each year. NOAA claimed that a lengthy process must be used to implement a cap on river herring bycatch, potentially leading to a multi-year delay in protecting this vulnerable and important fish.

“Wednesday’s decision demonstrated federal managers’ increasing commitment to science-based ecosystem management. Now, important forage fish like alewife, blueback herring, and shad in federal waters from Maine to North Carolina may be able to recover from their current all-time low levels. Additionally, this proposed monitoring system will allow scientists to gather far better information on Atlantic herring, another important forage species, and a base of the marine food web.”


On Wednesday, June 20, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) voted on five key measures in the Atlantic herring fishery. The managers passed a recommendation for 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on industrial trawlers, a plan to weigh all catch brought to shore in the fishery, and measures to require that observers sample bycatch before it is discarded at sea. The council failed to prohibit midwater trawlers from areas closed to groundfish fishermen, however they did insert new rules that will require accountability when the ships fish in closed areas. Although the NEFMC was unable to pass a cap on the incidental catch of river herring, it committed to do so as soon as possible.

On Thursday, June 14, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted to recommend 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on industrial mackerel trawlers and to implement an annual limit on catch of river herring and shad throughout the mackerel fishery in the region by 2014.

The Pew Environment Group led efforts that generated a letter from 25 members of Congress and over 47,000 public comments in support of a river herring catch cap.

Although most states restrict catch of river herring, prior to the votes by the councils in June, there had previously been no protections for these little but critically important fish in federally managed ocean waters.

Alewife and blueback herring, together known as river herring, are small in size but play a major role in coastal and marine ecosystems. They are forage fish: schooling fish that occupy the crucial midpoint of the ocean food web. Many predators, including ospreys, cod, tuna, and whales, feed on these species. A recent stock assessment and peer review confirmed that populations of river herring on the Atlantic seaboard are dangerously depleted and that ocean bycatch is a major factor in these low numbers.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently determined that river herring should be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Introduced to New England two decades ago, industrial herring trawlers catch hundreds of millions of pounds of sea herring every year. In this process, the vessels incidentally kill and waste vast amounts of other animals, from seals, dolphins, and whales, to important fish such as bluefin tuna, striped bass, cod, and river herring. These trawlers are the largest ships on the East Coast, with nets as wide as a football field and as tall as a five-story building. They can net everything in their path. One trip can scoop up to a million pounds of fish.

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