We Can Restore River Herring!

But the Mid Atlantic Council and NOAA Fisheries need to step up

What we can do to Restore River Herring

River Herring traverse a fish ladder

If you’ve been lucky enough to be there when river herring (bluebacks or alewives) clash with striped bass you know why we call them, “striper candy”.   It’s a big bait that attracts big fish, and makes them act really stupid.  Of course not only striped bass, but bluefin, yellowfin, cod, bluefish, weakfish and dozens of other predators go nuts over river herring…  At least they used to.

Unfortunately, river herring numbers have declined precipitously.  While in 2006 NOAA Fisheries listed them as a “Species of Concern”, a 2012 stock assessment recently confirmed river herring are in dire straits.  Alewife and bluebacks are anadromous species – spending most of their lives at sea, then ascending unique rivers to spawn.  Out of 24 assessed river runs 92% were determined to be badly depleted. A number of runs have dwindled so far that fewer than 100 adults return each spring to spawn.  Last year, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to list river herring under the Endangered Species Act, and while NOAA did a full review, they recently issued a statement declining to list, not because they didn’t believe river herring were in trouble, but because they just didn’t have enough data to support it.  Which I still don’t understand given the ASMFC assessment and the well-known fact that these fish spend most of their lives at sea.  But moving on….

The cause of the decline is heavily debated.  There are still those who want to blame a resurgence “ravenous” striped bass, which frankly is silly given the two species’ historical abundance and coexistence, and, well, there aren’t really that many stripers around anymore anyway.  No one really argues that pollution and impediments to upriver migrations haven’t played a large part in the decline.  Yet despite greatly improving water quality, dam removal, fish passages, and other efforts to restore habitat, not to mention state-imposed moratoria, river herring numbers, at least in the Mid-Atlantic, continue to tank.  (Note:   there are indeed some runs in New England that appear to be recovering, more on this later).

River herring are managed inshore by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).  That body has required most state fisheries to shut down; a few continue, subject to very small quotas, under state sustainable management plans.   Yet, at sea, industrial fisheries for sea herring and mackerel are still allowed to kill unlimited amounts of river herring, usually taken as bycatch, and most of that is simply unaccounted for.  The building consensus is that a lot, perhaps most, of the mortality is happening at sea.

River herring’s demise has been concurrent with the proliferation of mid-water small-mesh-net trawlers.  Since the late ‘70s, there has been a significant motivation for US fishermen to capitalize on fisheries for such low-trophic level species, in the form of federal subsidies among other things.   As a result, such fisheries grew in size and scope in a relatively short amount of time.

Operating mostly out of New England ports, such trawlers are quite large, with holds that can store over 1 million pounds of fish.  They employ an array of electronics to pinpoint and scoop up entire schools by dragging nets the size of a football field with mesh so small little escapes.  Apparently, one tow can put 50 tons of fish in the hold.  It’s not unreasonable to speculate that a single tow, in the wrong place at the wrong time, could wipe out an entire river’s run, particularly if it’s already depleted.

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So, incidental catch is likely a big factor in river herring’s depletion and failure to recover.   There is some data to back this assertion up, but not enough to be definitive, and therein lies the problem.   Observer coverage of the small-mesh-net fleet is very low.  Such observers, 3rd party contractors that sample and observe catch at sea so as to evaluate the composition of a fishery, are vital if managers are to know what goes on on those boats.

Both the Mid Atlantic and New England Councils, to their credit, sought to address this in their Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish and Sea Herring Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) respectively.  Last year, despite significant pushback from the industry, the Councils voted to recommend that NOAA Fisheries impose 100% at-sea observer coverage on industrial herring and mackerel trawlers, having industry share the cost with NOAA.

A few weeks ago, however, NOAA Fisheries disapproved the 100-percent observer coverage requirement, rationalizing the decision by claiming the agency had not yet developed a legal way share observer coverage costs.  What’s incredibly odd about this is that NOAA fisheries is already doing such observer cost-sharing in Alaska.  Upon further clarification, it appears that there is a mechanism for doing this in Alaska that was, many years ago, written into the Magnuson Stevenson Act, but only for Alaska?  Frankly, I don’t really understand it.  Public/private cost-sharing partnerships are pretty common as far as I know.  But I don’t venture to understand the complicated workings of such federal bureaucracies.   Regardless, even if they could implement a cost sharing program, the agency claimed it didn’t have the funds even for their part of the additional observer coverage.  Honestly, while it certainly isn’t a popular opinion in some circles, I believe that if any industry is granted the privilege of utilizing such large-scale gear to harvest a public resource in such large volumes for profit, then they absolutely should be required to fully fund whatever monitoring is necessary to insure that what they are doing is sustainable, not just in a maximum-sustainable-yield context, but an ecosystem context as well.  But moving on…

herr-fs-by-the-numbers-lwNOAA fisheries also rejected a requirement that all catch brought to shore in the fishery be weighed, and a limit on “slippage” events where bycatch is dumped at sea before it can be counted.  The latter is important, because NOAA Fisheries did uphold the Mid Atlantic Council’s requirement for an annual catch limit/cap for river herring and shad in the mackerel fishery, beginning in 2014.  In other words the mackerel fishery would close if it’s determined that such a cap is met or exceeded.  Yet the fact that large tows dominated by river herring can be dumped overboard dead before anyone can determine what was killed, seriously diminishes the enforceability of such catch cap.  Not to mention, without a significant number of observers for the fleet, it’s pretty difficult to determine if that catch cap is met even without slippage events.

So where does all this leave us?  Unfortunately not in a really good place.   And it’s more than a little frustrating.  The Councils worked hard on both amendments for years.  The provisions were fully vetted by the Councils and included carefully considered compromises.  In the end they had broad public support.  Really, we all thought we had the monitoring/accountability problem solved.  NOAA fisheries says they will work with the Councils to develop a solution to the monitoring issue, but I’m not holding my breath.  Even if they did figure out a legal way to cost share with the industry, if the money for observers isn’t there, it’s not there.

But there is hope.  The Mid Atlantic Council is currently developing an amendment that could add river herring and shad as directly managed “stocks in a fishery” (SIF) to their Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish FMP.  Doing so would force NOAA Fisheries to manage and conserve river herring when they are at sea, through the adoption of measures such as Annual Catch Limits, identifying Essential Fish Habitat, and establishing joint management plans in conjunction with bodies such as the New England Fishery Management Council and/or the ASMFC.  Whether it moves forward, however, is indeed in question as certainly there is opposition.  Making river herring a stock in the fishery (SIF) would require resources, and NOAA Fisheries is already indicating a reluctance to take this on.   But there’s a legal mandate here.  Federal FMPs must describe the species involved in a fishery, and NMFS and the Councils are required to manage those stocks in need of conservation and management.

That said, there will likely be those who will argue that river herring are not in need of conservation management in federal waters, or that we just don’t know enough about the status of the overall stock to proceed.  I think that’s BS!  We do know that 92% of the individual river runs are in bad shape.  Given all the recent evidence of the species’ decline and the building body of science indicating mortality at sea, I don’t know how that argument could fly.  NOAA Fisheries appears to support the catch cap, so that in itself would tell us that they do believe river herring are in need of such conservation and management.  Some will argue that the catch-cap is enough, but as mentioned, without observers it is virtually unenforceable.

There will also be those folks who argue that river herring simply don’t need federal management because they are already managed in state waters.  That is complete BS also.  It seems pretty darn obvious at this point that they are falling through the cracks in federal waters where they spend most of their lives, and where the bulk of the fishing mortality is probably occurring.  Again, NOAA Fisheries did support the annual river herring catch cap we passed a couple of meetings ago, so I think it would be strange for them to say they don’t need federal management.

There are those who argue that in-state/in-river barriers to migration are the cause of the problem, and the populations won’t come back no matter what we do in the ocean. That may be true to some extent, assuming such barriers weren’t being removed or mitigated across the coast.  Regardless, what SIF designation would do is enable NOAA Fisheries and the Council to identify Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) inshore.  When state and federal projects require federal licenses (energy projects, dams, etc.) those agencies would have to consult with NOAA Fisheries, which could stop or require mitigation of potentially habitat-damaging projects.  That would indeed be a good thing.

Lastly, industry has been arguing that volunteer bycatch avoidance projects are and will be sufficient.  Certainly industry should be commended for such efforts, and they may be working to some extent.  However, they are strictly volunteer, and managers should acknowledge that they are not a substitute for binding federal action to reduce river herring bycatch.

There is evidence that river herring can come back if given the opportunity.  There have been recent reports of recovering runs in New England as dams and other impediments to upriver migration patterns are removed.  There are those who argue that such recovering runs are evidence that river herring are not in trouble and that as long as we deal with inshore habitat issues they will come back.  But such anecdotal reports of a recovery are generally restricted to some very specific areas up north, and there’s some speculation that herring from such northern regions don’t spend their lives at sea in the areas small-mesh-net trawlers frequent.  And such recoveries are not happening in the Mid Atlantic’s rivers.  Regardless of whether the above is true, what the recovery of such local runs shows me is that they can recover.  We should be trying to facilitate that recovery, not allowing large bycatch events to set them back again.

As we move forward with the stocks-in-a-fishery amendment, we should acknowledge and stress that we can rebuild this culturally and economically important fish that has historically been a critical part of the marine food chain.  And that we can, at least to some extent, control mortality both inshore and offshore.  A stocks-in-the-fishery designation would give us the tools to do that.   It won’t be easy for NOAA Fisheries, or Council staff, to make it happen, but it’s their/our obligation.  This is not entirely new ground.  Such stocks-in-a-fishery management models do exist (e.g. salmon in the Pacific Northwest).  I would really like to hear more from NOAA Fisheries about how we can do it, instead of reasons why we can’t.

The public has made it more than clear that they want us to restore river herring, and as a key part of the problem becomes clear (bycatch mortality in the sea-herring and mackerel fisheries) the public has put it in no uncertain terms that they want it addressed.  States have invested and continue to invest resources while imposing draconian fishing restrictions including moratoria.  The Council and NOAA Fisheries have an obligation to their part in federal waters to make sure those efforts aren’t in vain.

If we can restore river herring runs to the Mid Atlantic, in my lifetime, that would be huge, and I think that we can.  The Mid Atlantic Council leads.  We have successfully rebuilt or are rebuilding every species under our jurisdiction.  No other Council can make that claim.  Making river herring and shad a stock in one of our FMPs would allow us to do the same with alewives and blueback.  And those once epic river herring bass-blitzes will once again come back.  We can successfully restore these historical and culturally important species and we will!

What we need now is the strong support of the public, particularly anglers, as we move forward.  Stay tuned, and we’ll let you know when and how you can provide such support.

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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