River Herring: Their Role in Coastal and Marine Ecosystems - Sailors for the Sea

River Herring: Their Role in Coastal and Marine Ecosystems

By: Pew Environment Group | March 1, 2012

This spring, as New England sailors leave their harbors for the open ocean, the last remaining schools of river herring will start a journey of their own as they 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. Now, federal fisheries managers are evaluating these fish for a potential listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Role in ecosystem 

Although small in size, river herring play a major role in coastal and marine ecosystems. 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 these species. River herring historically served as bait for sport and lobster fishing, and other important commercial fisheries also relied on herring to attract their catch. Many people in the Northeast eat pickled or smoked herring for good luck on New Year’s Eve.

The health of the ocean depends on the availability of small schooling fish for bigger ones to eat. When populations of forage fish dwindle, the survival of key species is threatened. Gulf of Maine cod, for example, are in serious decline, and they need forage fish such as herring to help them recover.

River herring spend most of their lives in the ocean, migrate to rivers 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, by the federal government, and by stakeholders. In the past two decades, however, another threat has emerged: unintentional catch, or bycatch, of river herring by vessels fishing for other species in the ocean.

Industrial Fishing

Industrial fishing boats began targeting Atlantic herring, the ocean-dwelling cousin of river herring, in the mid-1990s. These midwater trawlers tow nets that are longer than a football field and taller than a five-story building. 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: river herring, bluefin tuna, dolphins, whales, haddock, and cod, in addition to the targeted Atlantic herring.

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 midwater 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. Unfortunately, there are no protections for this fish in federally managed ocean waters. As a result, 150-foot vessels catch, and even land and sell them, in vast numbers. Since these industrial ships often operate far enough offshore, few of us ever see them. But 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 there: They can 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, a natural treasure we can’t afford to waste.

What can be changed?

This June, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), 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 urges the council to pass management provisions that would:

  • Limit the catch of river herring at sea. Populations are severely depleted coastwide. More needs to be done to protect this fish from incidental catch at sea. 
  • Require 100 percent monitoring of midwater trawl vessels. All trips should be monitored by federal observers so they 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. One year, federal observers witnessed one-third of midwater trawl tows dumping fish from their nets before they could even be examined, actions that distorted the data.  

By giving river herring the protection they need and by implementing proper management practices, we can ensure that populations of alewife and blueback, and the ecosystems they support, will remain healthy for generations.

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