In the first two parts of this series, I explained why the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council should choose the fastest and most certain path for rebuilding the Atlantic mackerel population and refrain from raising the catch limit until more is known about the species’ recovery. Raising the catch limit significantly would almost certainly be regrettable and could drive numbers of this depleted species lower.
Such a decision could also have tragic side effects on four other species of forage fish—American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring, and alewife, collectively called river herring and shad—that have long suffered from inadequate federal management.
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, ospreys, and striped bass, but also recreational anglers.
Despite moratoriums on the capture of these fish in most state waters along the East Coast and the spending of millions of taxpayer dollars to improve habitat, they are failing to recover. That’s in large part because those species school with Atlantic mackerel and Atlantic herring, both of which are pursued by enormous trawlers and caught by the millions. The river herring and shad species end up either thrown away dead or sold in large numbers alongside mackerel and herring.
On this point, the Atlantic mackerel fleet’s record in 2018 was abysmal. The fishery has a voluntary bycatch avoidance program, under which vessels are supposed to stay away from areas where they might encounter high numbers of river herring and shad, but it has failed to protect these nontarget species. In just the first two months of the year, the fleet—which fishes with football field-size nets—caught the entire year’s allowance of river herring and shad, mixed in with the mackerel it was pursuing. On Feb. 28, the federal government announced it was shutting down mackerel fishing for the remainder of the year.
If the council makes the mistake of raising the mackerel catch limit, it likely will also raise the allowable amount of dead river herring and shad proportionately. That’s because the council sets the bycatch cap for river herring and shad as a percentage of the mackerel catch limit—not based on a scientific assessment of how much of these nontarget species can be caught without further depleting their populations. The council’s unscientific management of these key forage fish species that school together obscures the reality that their populations are driven and threatened by different factors. And it means that the mackerel fishery could be rewarded with a larger cap on river herring and shad bycatch, despite the damage the fleet is inflicting on those species.
An increase in the mackerel catch limit—and thus the river herring and shad bycatch cap—would be devastating for these neglected and severely depleted species and might drive some of them to commercial extinction.
The Mid-Atlantic Council has repeatedly voted against managing river herring and shad under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, the nation’s primary ocean fish conservation law. Applying the standards of this successful law, which has helped rebuild 44 overfished species since 2000, would help these struggling fish. Ignoring the vital role that river herring and shad play in river ecosystems from Maine to North Carolina is an affront to the thousands of recreational fishermen and other stakeholders who continue to follow moratoriums or drastic catch reductions, only to see their years of good-faith efforts repeatedly undermined at sea.
The council’s Aug. 13 decision on the timelines and catch limits for rebuilding the Atlantic mackerel population will ripple throughout marine and riverine ecosystems and coastal communities for years. This vote is a chance to affirm that science, sustainability, and conservation guide the management of our ocean fisheries. The Mid-Atlantic Council should rebuild mackerel as quickly as possible, hold catch limits stable until scientific evidence confirms that the population has increased, and reject any catch increase of depleted river herring and shad.
Joseph Gordon is senior manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. oceans program in the Northeast.