Atlantic Herring Deserve Protection Along New England’s Coast

Maps show why fisheries council should adopt 50-mile buffer to safeguard species, predators, and economy

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Atlantic Herring Deserve Protection Along New England’s Coast
Humpback whale
NOAA

Atlantic herring are vital to coastal ecosystems on the East Coast as prey for a wide variety of marine wildlife. This September, the New England Fishery Management Council will decide how to protect herring in coastal waters from intensive industrial fishing, and how to change the way catch limits are calculated for this critical fish. The Pew Charitable Trusts recommends the council vote to protect waters out to 50 miles from shore, and set catch limits that reflect herring’s value to the ecosystem. This article is part of a series to raise awareness about the importance of herring.

Many marine species—from striped bass and puffins to sharks and whales—spend significant time close to shore, often to the delight of recreational fishermen, whale watchers, beachcombers, and others. In New England, as in many regions around the world, teeming nearshore waters are key to the coastal economy.

And as they do elsewhere, the fish, seabirds, and marine mammals come to New England in large part due to the abundance of prey—especially Atlantic herring, a key forage fish that swims in massive schools relatively close to the coast. Those schools in turn draw industrial mid-water trawl vessels, which tow football-field-sized nets that can deplete entire areas of the small herring, leaving higher-level predators without food in their preferred habitat.

This month, the New England Fishery Management Council will decide on rules and catch limits for this mid-water trawl Atlantic herring fleet. New maps using public data about key species and activities show why the council should prohibit this fleet from fishing within 50 miles of shore.

As the data show, juvenile cod—which need to survive to adulthood in order to breed and rebuild the severely depleted population of this species—find particularly suitable habitat within the 50-mile zone. Whales migrate through the same region in summer in search of herring to eat, attracting commercial whale-watching operations that are an important part of New England’s economy. Roseate terns and puffins, seabirds that have been dwindling in numbers and drawing scientists’ concern, also hunt in large numbers within 50 miles of shore. And Atlantic herring themselves spawn here, so by creating such a buffer the council would be protecting future generations of this species.

It is the mid-water trawlers’ capacity to remove such a high volume of fish from these vital and vulnerable areas that makes industrial scale herring fishing unsuitable here. The vessels tow their enormous nets for miles, capturing millions of herring that are compressed as the nets fill. By the end of a tow, the nets are so heavy that the crews must use industrial hydraulic pumps and winches to get the fish onboard. The herring end up squeezed and crushed, making their quality suitable only as a relatively low-value product such as bait. Vessels operate for days at a time, crisscrossing the same area over and over until no herring remain. Last year, over 108 million pounds of herring were landed at shore-side ports on the East Coast.

In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced an unusual and drastic in-season cut to the 2018 Atlantic herring catch limits in an effort to avoid making even deeper cuts later. The agency did this because the Atlantic herring population is crashing, further proof that management of the species is far too risky and must change. Establishing a buffer zone would help restore sustainability as a guiding management principle for one of the East Coast’s most vital forage fish. To further ensure the long-term viability of the species, the council should adopt a control rule that will reduce the chance that catch limits are set too high.

As the map indicates, the waters off of the Maine coast—known as Area 1A—are already off-limits to industrial mid-water trawlers for most of the year, evidence that protecting a large area from potentially destructive activity is not a novel idea. These maps illustrate just a small sampling of the scientific evidence that validates extending a coastal buffer zone along the New England coast, and why it should extend 50 miles from shore. And, as I will explain in my next article, the vast majority of the thousands of public comments to the council on this issue also supported the largest of the proposed protected zones.

When the New England Fishery Management Council meets in late September, it should heed scientific evidence and the voices of the public, and choose a 50-mile buffer. Anything less than that would leave important species and habitats needlessly vulnerable to damage—and that’s a risk the council can’t afford to take.

Peter Baker directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean conservation efforts in the Northeast.

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