A report released today by the Herring Alliance shows that river herring populations along the entire East Coast have been decimated to a mere fraction of their historic levels. Populations that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands are now down to single digits.
River herring are among the country's founding fisheries and represent a “pulse of protein” for almost every fish, bird and mammal that shares the same habitat. Ospreys, bald eagles, harbor seals, sea otters and striped bass are just a few of the predators that depend upon this fish for their survival. Entire ecosystems could be in danger as these once abundant fish continue to vanish from their home waters.
Until now, restoration efforts have focused on protecting essential habitats, removing structures that impede fish passage and setting limits for the river herring fisheries. Those threats have existed for decades without a coast-wide crash, but something has changed. According to the report, the answer appears to be industrial mid-water trawlers, enormous fishing boats that drag nets the size of football fields behind them. While fishing for Atlantic herring and mackerel, these vessels probably catch millions of river herring each year, a development that has gone unnoticed by the public and has been ignored by fishery managers.
“We are indeed facing the real possibility of rivers being completely devoid of any] river herring populations,” said Amy Schick Kenney, report author. “Efforts must continue to control fishing and open fish passage to spawning grounds, but a new threat from mid-water trawlers can no longer be overlooked.”
The extent of bycatch and its true impact on river herring populations is unknown because federal fishery managers at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have limited data on the problem. Because river herring and Atlantic herring look similar, especially in a catch comprised of thousands of fish, mid-water trawl fishermen tend to list all herring in a single category, thereby providing unreliable catch reports.
Using an on-board observer system, NMFS has attempted to verify the composition of the catches. But, this program has low coverage rates and flawed protocols. A lack of on-board observers often leaves important bycatch events completely unreported. These industrial ships are even allowed to dump their bycatch before an observer has the chance to examine it. These and other flaws in the observer program lead to data that is frequently misinterpreted or even purposefully distorted to show that the mid-water trawl fleets have little impact on river herring populations.
“There's no doubt that this observer system is riddled with problems,” said Peter Baker of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Group and director of the Herring Alliance. “It's critical that our federal fishery mangers improve the program and establish effective ways to accurately determine byatch data. If they drag their heels much longer, we'll run the risk of losing river herring populations forever.”
Connecticut, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have already banned the taking of river herring from their waters. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Shad and River Herring Management Board meets today in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss a potential coast-wide moratorium on commercial fishing for river herring. A public comment period is expected to follow.