Nearshore New England Waters Gain Protections From Midwater Trawling for Herring

Fishery managers create buffer zone, set adaptable catch limit rule

Nearshore New England Waters Gain Protections From Midwater Trawling for Herring
Puffin
Puffins rely on Atlantic herring and other forage fish species to feed their chicks.
Jud Crawford

New England’s marine ecosystem just won big—with even more rewards to come.

The Atlantic herring population is in the worst shape it’s been in for decades, but yesterday, the New England Fishery Management Council took decisive steps to restore the population and build a sustainable fishery. Members voted to create a buffer zone free from industrial midwater herring trawling out to 12 nautical miles (nm) from shore along the entire New England coast; in addition, the buffer zone around Cape Cod extends farther, to nearly 20 nm from shore. The council also established a control rule that will adjust future catch limits as needed to respect herring’s key role in the Atlantic ecosystem and leave many more of these vital fish in the water for predators. These two measures will directly benefit marine wildlife, such as seabirds, cod, tuna, sharks, and whales, and will help our coasts thrive. 

The council was right to take these historic steps toward the long-term sustainability of Atlantic herring and the ecosystem they support. To create the control rule, the council employed an innovative process, making this effort the first of its kind in the United States—and one of the first in the world—to incorporate input from all stakeholders. And the timing could hardly be more critical: Just last month, dire predictions about the next generation of Atlantic herring led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) to take drastic action, cutting the catch limit in the middle of the fishing season.

Coastal buffer zone to restrict industrial midwater herring trawling

The council followed the science and heeded strong public support in taking these steps. Although The Pew Charitable Trusts and many others advocated for a 50-nm buffer, the council’s choice to protect at least 12 nm of coastal waters year-round in all herring management areas does include valuable and sensitive spawning, feeding, and nursery habitat for a variety of species. The council listened to members of the public who have been calling for additional protections since industrial herring trawlers began operating in New England two decades ago. 

This buffer will protect some of New England’s richest and most diverse coastal habitat from intensive fishing, benefiting not only wild predators but also humans who depend on them, such as whale-watching operators, charter boat captains, and others. Midwater trawlers will still be allowed outside the buffer zone. Ships using less destructive gear, including purse seine and small-mesh bottom trawlers, will not be subject to the buffer.

Control rule to protect the herring population from declines

Pew recommended that the council choose a control rule with three components, as I wrote just last week, and the council passed a strong rule that includes all those elements. The new rule will reduce the chance of risky decisions when setting catch limits and will help fishermen and predators avoid the devastation of a future population crash. Pew estimates that this action will keep an additional 31 million pounds of herring in the water over the next three years, which will help rebuild the declining population and increase essential forage for predators. 

Scientists increasingly recommend that forage fish be managed differently from predator fish, and the council’s action is a bold step in that direction. New England managers deserve credit for being among the first to take concrete steps to conserve forage fish, using up-to-date science on these uniquely important species.

The new rules will now be submitted to NOAA Fisheries, which will start the formal rulemaking process. The final rule is expected to go into effect in 2019.

Today’s decisions represent a significant step toward big-picture, ecosystem-based fisheries management. New England managers are leading the way on forage fish management, and science should continue to guide the council’s decisions. 

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

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