Federal Managers Should Act to Reverse Decline of Vital Coastal Fish

Struggling river herring and shad could come back with sound policy

Federal Managers Should Act to Reverse Decline of Vital Coastal Fish

River herring

River herring and shad spend most of their lives at sea, where hundreds of thousands are killed every year as incidental catch in industrial fishing operations targeting other species.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

Every spring, as part of an annual migration, river herring and shad on the East Coast leave the ocean and run up rivers to spawn. At sea, river herring and shad are food for valuable commercial species, including tuna and cod, as well as whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. And in rivers, their spawning runs attract not only eagles, osprey, and striped bass but also recreational anglers.

But before they even have the chance to contend with dams and predators waiting upstream, these fish face a grave threat: Industrial-scale trawlers—vessels with nets as big as a football field—capture hundreds of thousands of river herring and shad annually. And although these trawlers are aiming for other species, such as sea herring and mackerel, in just one tow they can remove an entire river’s worth of river herring and shad—fish that are often dumped overboard dead, or mixed in with other fish and sold as bait.

A waste of fish, taxpayer dollars, and goodwill

Even worse, this large catch of river herring and shad swiftly erodes states’ efforts to restore these species. In the past decade, more than $100 million in state and federal taxpayer money has funded projects along the Atlantic coast to remove dams, install fish ladders, stock fish, and clean up rivers. Most East Coast states also enforce moratoriums or extremely low catch limits within their boundaries (including the ocean out to three miles from shore)—meaning that even fishermen who are fortunate enough to catch the river herring or shad that survive the offshore gantlet are required to release them alive.

A shadow of their former glory—and fame

Numbers of river herring and shad—a collective name that includes blueback herring, alewives, American shad, and hickory shad—are at or near all-time lows, with levels at less than 5 percent of their historic populations along the East Coast. They have been decimated by a combination of overfishing, loss of river habitat, and dams that impede their upriver migration to their spawning grounds.

States know that restoring these fish is worth the effort. From Maine to Florida, shad and river herring festivals are still held to celebrate the robust spawning runs of the past and project hope for the future. Last year, the mayor of Washington, DC, named American shad the District’s official fish, noting that it’s “the fish of our founders,” in part because river herring and shad helped feed George Washington’s troops during the harsh winter of 1778.

Recovered populations would benefit wildlife, businesses, anglers, and communities. But states can’t restore these fish on their own.   

Weak rules fail to protect fish

Although river herring and shad spend most of their lives in the ocean, they aren’t managed under our country’s primary marine fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Instead, the industrial fishing industry is encouraged to voluntarily avoid the river herring and shad that mix with the species that trawlers and other commercial ships pursue and to share information to help other vessels do the same.

To provide an incentive for industry to participate in this effort, the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils set “catch caps,” which define how much river herring and shad can be caught incidentally in other fisheries. Unlike catch limits, which are required under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and must be based on science and conservation principles, caps are established and revised at managers’ discretion and are based on recent years’ catches. But even with the cap, hundreds of thousands of river herring and shad can be killed annually. In the meantime, federal managers have no plan to rebuild these struggling species because the safeguards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act—including science-based annual catch limits, accountability measures, habitat protections, and rebuilding plans—do not apply to them.

In the last month, the problems with voluntary avoidance have been laid bare. On Feb. 28, just two months into the year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down the mackerel fishery when those vessels exceeded their annual catch cap for river herring and shad. And on March 12, NOAA announced it would close the Atlantic herring fishery in southern New England for the rest of the year, for the same reason.

An achievable solution

The Magnuson-Stevens Act has delivered effective management of our ocean fisheries. Since the turn of the 21st century, 44 fish species have been rebuilt to healthy levels. And nationwide, the number of fish stocks at depleted levels or still being fished too heavily has never been lower.

It’s time to stop squandering the good-faith time, effort, and money that states are investing to rebuild river herring and shad. With effective federal management and conservation policies at sea—passed under the Magnuson-Stevens Act—rivers up and down the East Coast could once again come to life with thousands of migrating fish. There is hope for a brighter future with the right management.

State Spotlight:

In 1866, Pennsylvania created the Fish and Boat Commission to restore runs of American shad. More than 150 years later, the state leads the nation in dam removal—eliminating 16 in 2017 alone. But even though Pennsylvania also makes substantial investments to stock millions of shad each year, migratory runs are in decline. Anglers and boaters spend over $1.2 billion annually to enjoy outdoor activities in the state, and recovery of shad and river herring will bring even greater economic and cultural benefits.

Peter Baker directs ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast for The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Joseph Gordon is Pew’s senior manager for mid-Atlantic Ocean conservation issues.


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