This report exposes a threat to New England's coastal waters that has gone largely unnoticed for too long: the mismanagement of our Atlantic herring resource. Over the past decade a fleet of industrial-scale fishing vessels has dramatically expanded its operations in the region and now catches well over 150 million pounds of herring annually. Because herring form the cornerstone of the marine ecosystem—feeding whales, seabirds, striped bass, tuna and numerous other predators, the ecological reverberations of such intense fishing pressure spreads far and wide. These ships fish 24 hours a day, breaking up schools of herring, and scattering predators that rely on the fish for food and survival. While the full impact of removing massive amounts of the ocean's key forage species will take years to assess, we know for certain today that haddock, seals, seabirds, tuna, severely imperiled river herring, and other species that interact with Atlantic herring are being swept up and killed by the massive nets.
It doesn't have to be this way. Not long ago, herring were harvested in a sustainable manner with traditional small-scale gear from the shores of Cape Cod to the eastern stretches of the Maine coast. Unfortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service—the government agency responsible for conserving the public's marine resources—has not adequately updated its rules to match the killing power of the industrial fleet and as a result the resource and the coastal communities that rely on it are in peril. For example, since the first midwater trawler arrived in 1994 less than three percent of the thousands of fishing trips carried federal observers. By contrast, similar fisheries on the West Coast and in Canada are required to maintain 30 to 100 percent coverage. What's more, the catch the midwater trawlers bring to shore isn't even weighed to ensure the fleet is staying within limits. Particularly in light of the repeat collapses in New England's historic cod, halibut, river herring and other fisheries in recent years, such a gamble with the health of the ocean's cornerstone species is irresponsible and should be unacceptable in the management of a public resource.
Today, as we have seen in numerous fisheries around the world, managers have the tools at their disposal to allow harvesters to make a living from the ocean and safeguard its health—common sense steps like increasing the number of observers on fishing vessels at sea and weighing and certifying the catch on land. But we must act now before it's too late. The herring fishery is a public resource and you have the right to demand that it is taken care of properly. To learn more and get involved, go to www.herringalliance.org. Together we can take care of this critical species, but we need your help.
Peter Baker, Project Manager
Atlantic Herring Campaign
Pew Environment Group
Readers interested in further research or accessing the source documents referenced in the report can download a fully cited version of "Out of Balance" in electronic form through the Herring Alliance Web site.