Code Red Herring!

Atlantic Herring

One of the most important forage fish in the ocean is in trouble, but YOU can do something about it

Top photo: Atlantic herring, via John McMurray

Atlantic herring are in bad shape. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

A recent stock assessment confirmed what most of us already knew – the sea herring stock is badly depleted. Spawning stock biomass (the weight of the population that can reproduce) as well as recruitment (the number of juvenile fish entering the population) are both lower than they have been since the 1980s.

That’s not at all surprising given the pressure that’s been put on them in the last couple of decades.

Ever see those big industrial trawlers trolling right beside one another off of Rhode Island or Massachusetts? Those are midwater trawls, often working in tandem, towing nets the size of a football field, which scoop up massive amounts of the schooling low-trophic-level fish.

They are very efficient at catching, well, everything. And that’s unfortunate. Not only have they pushed Atlantic herring down to scary low numbers, but also A LOT of folks believe that they are responsible for catastrophic depletion of alewife and blueback herring. Mandated catch caps in the herring and mackerel fisheries have thus far done little to help.

Aside from all that, once these trawls show up at the local grounds, well, you can forget about fishing. Whatever bite that was on there—tuna, striper, whatever—is done. Not because they catch all the bait, but they disperse whatever is left. This has been very frustrating to commercial, charter and recreational fishermen.

Of course, as anglers, we understand just about everything eats herring. They have historically driven epic striped bass and bluefin bites in New England. And they used to drive an extraordinary late season and/or early spring striped bass bite in the Mid Atlantic. Herring is pretty darn important to the local economy, supporting commercial and recreational fishing, the lobster industry that uses it as bait, and ecotourism businesses like whale watching, which pretty much depend on sea herring aggregations.

So, preventing overfishing and trying to bring them back is critical, for more reasons than one.

New England Council Amendment 8 Final Action: September 25

The way catch limits are currently set for herring is just plain risky. The methodology is based on how much was caught in prior years, instead of their biology, or simply their importance to the ecosystem. This arguably is what led us to where we are today—a depleted stock.

Next week (Tuesday, Sept 25th), the New England Fishery Management Council will meet in Plymouth, MA to decide whether or not they want to change the current methodology and also decide how herring will be managed in the future.

The rule under consideration is “Amendment 8.”

Managers from all New England states, Council staff, and scientific and technical experts have spent the last three years developing Amendment 8 with significant public input. During the public comment period, the majority of stakeholders were overwhelmingly in support of stronger conservation measures, and in support of fully accounting for sea herring’s role as forage (read: bait).

“Amendment 8” has two main components:

  1. The “Control Rule” component, which is setting catch limits for herring that account for its role in the ecosystem as a forage fish.
  2. And the “buffer zone” component, which is intended to address “localized depletion” (having all of an area’s herring wiped out so all the predators leave) through the establishment of an area close to shore where midwater trawls would not be allowed to operate.

Here’s what you need to know.

Setting Catch Limits – “Control Rule”

A control rule is a science-based, pre-agreed-upon guideline. In this case, it would determine how much fishing can take place based on the health of the herring population and the feeding demands of predators.

The Council should select Alternative 2, which defines a control rule that prioritizes ecosystem needs (read: predators, e.g. striped bass), and limits directed fishing on sea herring accordingly.

This is undoubtedly the best option for the herring population, marine predators that depend on herring, and the marine ecosystem overall.

It’s pretty clear to most of us that too many herring are being taken out of the water without enough left to support predators. Managers should avoid further depleting the herring population. While they are lowering catch limits for the remainder of 2018 and 2019, they should pass a new control rule so that future catch limits are set in a way that allows the population to recover and provides enough herring for gamefish and other marine predators.

Localized Depletion and User Conflicts – “Buffer Zone”

There are certainly those who disagree with me here, but it simply isn’t fair for a hand-full of big-ass, highly-extractive, profit-focused boats to be able to screw things up for everyone else. It’s been pretty clear up to now that they just don’t care about the rest of us. A lot of this unrest would have never materialized if they had simply chosen to stay away from certain areas.

But it’s a fact that when these big factory boats move in to a productive spot, rake up all the bait, then move on to the next area, it impacts everyone who might have been there. If you are one of those guides, charter boat captains, or commercial fishermen that gets screwed by these guys, well, you get it. Otherwise it seems pretty self-evident. It’s a public resource. One stakeholder shouldn’t be able to go in, take whatever they want, and leave the rest of the fleet with, well, nothing.

But let’s take the higher ground here for a minute and talk about the obvious biological impacts. If you take away a predator’s food source, well, do I even need to go any further than that? It’s common sense.

With all that in mind, there really should be, in fact there has to be, a year-round “buffer zone” in the coastal waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island in which herring vessels using midwater trawl gear are prohibited. And one that’s large enough to encompass the areas that different predators (mammals, fish, and even birds) need.

The Council should select a buffer zone that extends from the coast to 50 miles offshore, be year-round, and include parts of herring management Areas 1B, 2 and 3. (Alternative 6, Area Sub-option A, and Seasonal Sub-option A).

Lower intensity gear that catches herring, like purse seines and small-mesh bottom trawl, would still be allowed to fish in this area. And of course, no one is talking about putting midwater trawls out of business. They would still be allowed further offshore, where these vessels already fish for a significant part of their annual catch anyway.

What can you do?

Attend the September Council meeting in Plymouth, MA if you can. It is important for members of the public to be in the room during the final decision, Council members take notice when their constituents attend and are paying attention to the outcome of their votes.

Can’t make next week’s meeting? Contact a Council member in your state—right now. Let them know you are familiar with the issue and support conservation of Atlantic herring. Here is a list of Council members with contact info.

Do it now, before you forget.

The New England marine ecosystem, and really the Mid Atlantic’s too, depends on a healthy population of sea herring. Mismanagement of that resource has gone on for far too long.

But it’s not too late.

Amendment 8 has the potential to change the equation. Hopefully the New England Council will do the right thing here, but it’s gonna take some prodding.

And you need to prod.

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

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