Why for the love of river herring I went to frigid Plymouth for a sea herring meeting

On Tuesday, February 7,  when wind driven snow slashed across the bay, in Plymouth the fate of a small silver fish and a fishery was being decided at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council’s Herring Committee.

The room was packed.  The council was deep into Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan. More than the aisle between the rows of chairs separated the audience. Overflowing out into the hallway were herring fishermen.  On the other side, were charter boat operators, striped bass and bluefish fishermen, anglers, watershed groups, and conservationists.

I was of the latter group and saw the problem as recognized by Amendment 1: “significant damage to a keystone species like herring could result in long-term and possibly irreversible damage to many other components of the…ecosystem.” The keystone species of great importance to me are the river herring (bluebacks and alewives). So why had I traveled far for a sea herring (different species) meeting on the icy shores of Plymouth harbor?

Coastal communities have improved river conditions for alewives, blueback herring, and shad since 1976 when fishery regulations were first passed. Watershed associations worked with state and federal agencies. Dams were removed; fish ladders, pools and ripple areas built, and shade trees planted. $8 billion has been spent by government improving river conditions for herring. Often, private investments have matched government spending.  Anglers and others have invested in the game fish that forage on herring.

Yet, despite all the efforts to restore river herring, there is mounting evidence that blueback herring populations may have dwindled to threatened status.

And then the river herring go to sea. Alewives and blueback herring are thought to spend up to seven years at sea schooling with other bait fishing including sea herring in the Atlantic Ocean. Much research has been done on the make-up of herring schools in the Gulf of Maine. Researchers have identified seasonal hotspots for where river herring co-mingle with Atlantic herring and these places are now in the regulations although they offer no protections. There are a number of small businesses that rely on adequate herring in the water, rather than harvested out of the water.  These user groups include the whale watch industry that rely on seeing whales and seabirds feed on forage fish.  My concern is for alewives, blueback herring and shads in collision with the North Atlantic herring fishery.  On the backs of Atlantic herring rides the fourth largest fishery, by weight, in the world.1

The biggest fishing ships in New England waters are the “mid-water trawling” vessels that reach 160 feet in length. They set massive nets six stories high. One set of the trawl can haul in 800,000 pounds of fish. The problem is a matter of scale where one misplaced trawl could destroy the entire population of one river’s herring. All the millions spent on that river’s herring could be for naught when a herring population does not return because they have been pulled from the ocean, a most final trawl.

Unfortunately, the fishery amendment only offers alternatives that prohibit mid-water trawlers from fishing from 6 to 50 nautical miles from shore.  Trawlers with different gear types, such as large bottom trawlers, also catch a ton of river herring that they dump at sea.  This was a concern last year when small mesh bottom trawlers nearly 150 feet in length hoovered inside of Narraganset Bay. Significant biological and ecological impacts can be caused by intense fishing.  Associated marine life may be harmed, particularly predator fish and marine mammals that must leave the area to find food and other animals such as river herring that are caught as bycatch.

I called on the fishery council to take the precautionary approach in amending the herring plan, to support year-round closures to mid-water trawlers extending 50 miles from shore. This is the only alternative under consideration that protects all identified river herring hotspots.  Don’t overfish our silver darlings!

I invite  you to take a moment to write a comment as to why sending sea herring fishing boats at least 50 miles offshore when using mid-water trawling gear.  Sea herring may be fished inshore using different gear.  The Council needs testimonies of how individuals other than sea-herring fishermen are linked to this particular fishery.  The more specific you can be, the more weight your voice will carry.   Click here to my letter to the Herring Committee, or paste in this link:  http://bit.ly/RiverHerringLet