With Atlantic Herring Population Crashing, Managers Should Adopt Science-Based Rules

New England council can help vital species rebound from near historic lows

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With Atlantic Herring Population Crashing, Managers Should Adopt Science-Based Rules
Industrial-scale trawlers tow one massive net behind them to catch herring off the coast of Rhode Island. Since they began operating in New England in the mid-1990s, these ships have come to dominate the herring fishery even as they have encountered intense opposition from the traditional day-boat fleet.
Laptew Productions

Atlantic herring are vital to coastal ecosystems on the East Coast as prey for a wide variety of marine wildlife. This month, 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 that 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.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) took the unusual step of cutting the catch limit for Atlantic herring midway through the fishing season in an effort to avert even deeper cuts in the future. The latest scientific survey showed a dramatic drop in the next generation of herring, meaning that very few will reach adulthood, threatening the health of the population. Atlantic herring are collapsing, and recovery is likely to take many years.

This bad news makes the decisions in front of the New England Fishery Management Council that much more urgent. As I wrote recently, one decision will be about establishing a buffer zone to protect sensitive coastal areas from intensive midwater trawling, potentially as far as 50 nautical miles from shore. The other will be to choose a “control rule”—a way to adjust the catch limit as the population changes over time. Research shows that good control rules reduce the risk of population crashes.

This small crew hauling in Atlantic herring off Belle Isle, Canada, is indicative of the scale of small day-boats that operate in New England’s coastal waters.
David Doubilet Getty Images

A return to the bad old days

This should not have happened. After all, we’re only a few decades past the last devastating collapse. In the 1960s and ‘70s, foreign trawlers exploited herring off the U.S. East Coast, landing close to 1 billion pounds at the peak in 1968. A few years later, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act expelled foreign ships from all U.S. waters, but it was too late to stem the decline of the population. In 1982, herring biomass—the total weight of all the fish in the population—bottomed out at around 10 percent of its 1967 size. Now we have returned to those decimated levels, and this time we have no foreign fishing fleets to blame.

So how did this happen? Industrial trawl vessels were first used to catch herring in New England in the mid-1990s, just when the herring population was beginning to grow. These large vessels have a capacity that allows them to stay at sea for two or three days and hold many more fish than the small day-boats that had fished for herring through the 1980s: From 2008 to 2014, trawlers caught 67 to 73 percent of all the Atlantic herring brought to shore. As charts of the steadily dropping population show, the trawlers operated under clearly unsustainable catch limits. This year’s survey is the grim consequence of that risky management approach.

A good control rule for forage fish has three components

Now the council must act, and with several options on the table, the right first step is to identify what matters in a control rule. The best control rules have three components:

  • A science-based biomass cutoff. Fishing must stop if the population dips to that critically low level.
  • A catch limit based on the population size, calculated using a straightforward equation.
  • An upper goal, or target, for the herring population that ensures that at least half of the maximum sustainable yield—the amount that could be removed in the water from fishing every year without driving down the population—is left in the water to help the population recover and to provide adequate food for wild predators.

The public knows that herring matter

The health of the herring population is critical to the Atlantic ecosystem. After all, these small forage fish do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are a vital food source for some of New England’s most beloved and iconic species, from puffins to humpback whales to cod and tuna. When herring are largely absent from the environment, many other species will go hungry or struggle to thrive.

And New Englanders care about conserving herring. According to the council’s summary, 332 people attended its six public hearings, and thousands more submitted comments in writing. Of the almost 20,000 New Englanders who weighed in, the vast majority supported strong conservation for Atlantic herring. They know the status quo is not good enough.

When the council meets in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on Sept. 25, they will have a wealth of scientific advice to inform their vote, as well as a clear message from the public. They should vote for a 50-mile coastal buffer from industrial midwater trawling and a control rule that includes the three components that forage fish need. New England cannot afford any more risky choices for its herring population.

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

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