Little Fish, Big Fishery

Within the next few weeks, alewife and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring, will begin their annual migration from coastal waters to their native rivers. The platinum-colored fish spend most of the year in the ocean, migrating to rivers to spawn each spring before returning to sea.

River herring were once plentiful in Northeast U.S. waters, but are now threatened by unchecked industrial scale fishing methods. In fact, federal fisheries managers are evaluating these fish for a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. A vote in June by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), the organization that manages the region's fishery resources, could make all the difference for the area's river herring and the health of oceans. Before then, the general public will have the chance to voice their concerns at public hearings being held across the Northeast or submit letters to council members in an effort to help prevent the disappearance of these important fish.

Although small in size, alewives and bluebacks play a major role in our coastal and marine ecosystems. They are forage species—schooling fish that play a crucial role in the ocean food web, consuming plankton before being eaten by other animals, such as ospreys, cod, striped bass, tuna, and whales. These tiny fish have also historically served as bait for sport and lobster fishing, and other important commercial fisheries.

Giving river herring the protection they require and implementing appropriate management practices can ensure that populations of alewives and bluebacks, and the ecosystems they support, will remain healthy for generations..- Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Ocean Conservation

Populations of river herring have plummeted along the Atlantic Coast due to dams blocking access to spawning habitat, degradation of waters from pollution, and overfishing in rivers. Several states, the federal government, and community groups have addressed these issues through a variety of efforts. However, a new risk has emerged: Industrial-scale fishing for other herring species is decimating populations of river herring, which are being hauled in as bycatch (sea life caught unintentionally). This practice threatens to undermine ongoing efforts to restore these fish to sustainable levels.

For decades, New Englanders caught herring using traditional fishing gear, such as weirs, fish traps that maintained healthy population sizes. However, massive fishing boats began targeting Atlantic herring, the ocean-dwelling cousin of alewives and bluebacks, in the mid-1990s and have contributed to declines in the baitfish populations because of bycatch. These industrial midwater trawlers tow nets longer than a football field and taller than a five-story building. This indiscriminate fishing method kills up to 500,000 pounds of marine life in each tow. In addition to the targeted Atlantic herring, river herring, bluefin tuna, dolphins, whales, and haddock end up in these nets.

From June 19 to 21, the New England Fishery Management Council will have an opportunity to help rebuild river herring populations. Most states restrict catches of alewives and bluebacks; some even prohibit netting them for bait. However, three miles off the coast, federally managed ocean waters provide no protections for these fish. The Pew Environment Group is urging the NEFMC to pass management provisions that would:

  • Limit the catch of river herring at sea. Populations are severely depleted coastwide. More needs to be done to protect this fish from becoming bycatch.
  • Require 100 percent monitoring of midwater trawl vessels. All trips should be monitored by federal observers to better assess the impact of this industrial fishing method on river herring populations and the ecosystem.
  • Prohibit dumping. Current rules allow vessels to dump their unwanted catch at sea without bringing it onboard for sampling. This practice is wasteful and makes it impossible for managers to know how many fish are being caught, thus concealing the true extent of the non-target herring and other fish that are killed. In 2009, federal observers witnessed one-third of midwater trawl tows dumping fish from their nets before they could be examined.

Giving river herring the protection they require and implementing appropriate management practices can ensure that populations of alewives and bluebacks, and the ecosystems they support, will remain healthy for generations.

To help make a difference, write a letter to the NEFMC, and let its members know you support better oversight of this industrial fishery and increased protection for the ocean and its resources.

This article originally ran at

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