Atlantic Herring

Atlantic herring is one of the most important prey fish in the Georges Bank-Gulf of Maine ecosystem, feeding the fish we love to eat ― tuna, haddock, cod and striped bass ― as well as whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds. Similarly, coastal communities that depend on sport fishing, whale watching, seabird watching and other ocean-based tourism need plenty of herring for those businesses to thrive.

Yet, the recent expansion of industrial-scale fishing for Atlantic herring using midwater trawls has jeopardized the health of this key resource with little regard for its impact on the broader ecosystem and coastal communities.

The Issues
Current herring catch limits for commercial fishing leave little room for the food needs of predators. Given the major role herring play in the food chain, the needs of their predators should be adequately factored in when setting fishing limits for herring.

Herring predators ― the larger fish we eat, marine mammals and sea birds ― are also threatened by the trawl vessels. Because they feed on the same schools of herring that trawl vessels target, these predators are vulnerable to accidental capture, injury and death in the massive nets. Federal fishery observers have documented fishing-related deaths of protected whales and dolphins and hundreds of thousands of pounds of groundfish and river herring. These casualties are known as bycatch, a well-documented, but poorly monitored reality.

River herring, for example, are listed as a Species of Concern by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and are often captured as bycatch when they intermix with Atlantic herring at sea. These imperiled fish need protection, including a bycatch cap, which dictates that fishing in certain areas must stop when too many river herring have been caught by trawlers.

Our Goals
1.  Establish ecosystem-based catch limits that leave enough herring in the ocean for whales, tuna and other marine life that feed on them.

2.  Create buffer zones and closed areas to prevent fishing in specific parts of the ocean during critical times of the year in order to protect juvenile and spawning fish, minimize bycatch and ensure herring is abundant when it is most needed by predators.

3.  Develop a comprehensive monitoring program, including at-sea observers on midwater trawl vessels, so that estimating the herring catch and bycatch of depleted river herring and groundfish, as well as marine mammals, is more accurate.

Latest News
The New England Fishery Management Council is currently developing new monitoring and bycatch rules to include in Amendment 5 to the Atlantic herring fishery management plan. Bycatch — the unintended capture of unwanted fish and other animals during fishing — is a growing concern in this industrial-scale fishery. Find out more about the solutions that could help resolve many problems in this fishery.

The Atlantic (or sea) herring is one of the most important fishes in New England. This energy-rich species plays a vital role in the region’s marine ecosystem, serving as food for many of the ocean’s key predators. Learn more about sea herring’s role as a lynchpin in the Atlantic Ocean.

Populations of alewife and blueback herring are in serious decline along the Atlantic coast and face numerous threats. These river herring play an important ecological role in rivers and coastal waters, providing a crucial source of food to wildlife. Discover the hazards impacting these dwindling river herring populations.

For more information, visit the Herring Alliance Web site.


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Atlantic Herring Highlights

"A Fish in Troubled Waters” explores the plight of river herring in the northeast United States.


“The Tip of the Iceberg” is an animation that highlights glaring loopholes in the monitoring of the Atlantic herring fishery.


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