This spring the last remaining schools of river herring in
New England will migrate from open-water feeding grounds to their native rivers. Alewife and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring, were once found in nearly every coastal river in the Northeast, according to the Pew Environment Group. Now, federal fisheries managers are evaluating these fish for a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Although small in size, river herring play a major role in coastal and marine ecosystems, according to the conservation arm of The Pew Charitable Trusts. They are forage fish — schooling fish that occupy the crucial midpoint of the ocean food web, consuming plankton before being eaten by other animals.
Many predators, including ospreys, cod, striped bass, tuna and whales, feed on river herring. These fish historically served as bait for sport and lobster fishing, and other important commercial fisheries also relied on herring to attract their catch.
The health of the ocean depends on the availability of small schooling fish for big predators to eat. When populations of forage fish dwindle, the survival of key species is threatened, Pew officials said.
cod, for example, are in serious decline, and they need forage fish such as herring to help them recover. Gulf of Maine
River herring spend most of their lives in the ocean, migrate to rivers, including several in
, to spawn each spring, and return to sea. The fish are disappearing from the East Coast because of dams, habitat degradation and in-river overfishing, threats that have been aggressively addressed through ongoing efforts by states, the federal government and stakeholders. In the past two decades, however, another threat has emerged — unintentional catch, or by-catch, of river herring by vessels fishing for other species in the ocean, according to Pew officials. Rhode Island
Industrial fishing boats began targeting Atlantic herring, the ocean-dwelling cousin of river herring, in the mid-1990s. These mid-water trawlers tow nets that are longer than a football field and taller than a 5-story building, according to the Pew Environment Group. Herring and other species trapped in the nets are then pumped onboard. This indiscriminate fishing method kills up to 500,000 pounds of marine life in each tow.
This type of industrial fishing decimates populations of river herring and threatens to undermine ongoing efforts to restore these fish to healthy levels. A single tow by a large mid-water vessel can wipe out one river’s entire herring population.
Most states restrict catch of river herring in their waters; some even prohibit netting them for bait. However, there are no protections for this fish in federally managed ocean waters. As a result, 150-foot vessels catch them in vast numbers.
This winter, industrial trawlers targeted Atlantic herring in
Rhode Island’s shallow state waters, and they often can be seen in sensitive coastal waters such as Ipswich Bay and the Cape Cod area. These large vessels pose numerous dangers: catch smaller boats in their nets, damage lobster pots and capture river herring returning to their native rivers.
Trawling along the shores of the Northeast can disrupt the ocean ecosystem, according to Pew officials.
In June, the New England Fishery Management Council, the organization that manages the region’s fishery resources, will have the opportunity to stop the disappearance of river herring populations, but strong regional measures will be required. The Pew Environment Group has recommended that the council to pass management provisions that would:
Limit the catch of river herring at sea, as populations are severely depleted.
Require 100 percent monitoring of mid-water trawl vessels, so federal observers can better assess the impact of this industrial fishing method on river herring and the ecosystem.
Prohibit dumping. Current rules allow vessels to dump their unwanted catch at sea without bringing it onboard for sampling. This practice is wasteful and makes it impossible for managers to know how many fish are being caught, thus concealing the true extent of herring mortality.