Regulators, worried about preserving this crucial species in the food chain, are considering new ecosystem-based restrictions that would affect prime fishing grounds off Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. â€” The Atlantic herring is a small, seemingly unremarkable fish that has distinguished itself through sheer numbers. When herring spawn, they can cover the ocean bottom in a carpet of eggs inches thick. Migrating schools of the fish can number in the billions and have been known to stretch miles wide.
But despite its prolific nature, there are growing concerns in some quarters about the state of the fishâ€™s population, which, according to federal data, has been in decline for the last five years. Environmental advocates and some fishing groups worry that if herring is overfished, it could spell trouble for striped bass, tuna and a whole host of other species in Rhode Island and elsewhere along the Northeast coast that prey on it.
â€śIf thereâ€™s no big stocks of herring to entice these other fish into Narragansett Bay, they may pass us by,â€ť said Michael Jarbeau, baykeeper for Providence-based environmental group Save The Bay.
Later this month, fisheries regulators will decide whether to adopt a new set of regulations, known as Amendment 8, that could include restricting fishing areas for the herring and could, for the first time, account for the fishâ€™s place in the larger ecosystem.
The New England Fishery Management Councilâ€™s Atlantic herring committee will meet next week to vote on a recommendation to the full council, which meets the following week.
Consideration of the new management system, and the restrictions it would bring, follows the announcement in August that next yearâ€™s quota for Atlantic herring had been cut by 55 percent from its original level. The revision was made in response to the population decline and was aimed at preventing overfishing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in explaining its decision.
Like its cousins the blueback herring, alewife herring, Atlantic menhaden and American shad, the Atlantic herring plays a critical role in the marine ecosystem, because just about every bigger animal in and around the ocean along its range from Labrador to North Carolina likes to eat it.
The silvery fish serves as a link in the food chain, feeding on tiny copepods, krill and other zooplankton and then serving as food for others.
Count cod, bluefish, a variety of species of sharks and whales, bald eagles, ospreys and terns among the predators that depend on the oily herring as nutrient-rich prey.
Herring spawn in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank in the late summer and fall and migrate to Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic for the winter.
The Atlantic herring fishery has averaged between $20 million and $30 million in revenues in recent years. Fishing boats mainly catch the fish for use as lobster bait. The boats range in size, but the largest are so-called midwater trawlers, which tow huge nets and can quickly scoop up millions of pounds of herring, causing, according to environmentalists and others, the depletion of the fish in small areas.
Prime fishing grounds for herring include Block Island Sound and other waters around Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Commercial fishing groups say that herring are being caught at sustainable levels and argue against the new ecosystem approach that would set a long-term Acceptable Biological Catch, or ABC, control level. They say the system needs more flexibility to react to dips and spikes in the herring population.
â€śLocalized depletion of herring has never been documented. Herring, and the species that feed on them, are both highly migratory, and travel over a wide range. Any potential impact from the herring fishery would be limited in duration,â€ť the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, which includes Rhode Island-based Seafreeze and The Town Dock, said in a statement.
If the debate over Atlantic herring sounds familiar, thatâ€™s because it is. Almost identical issues were raised a year ago when a different fisheries management board considered changes to the management regime for menhaden that also would have included a new ecosystem-based regulatory approach.
â€śThe issues are very much the same,â€ť said Richard Hittinger, first vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, a recreational fishing group. â€śThey too are a very important forage fish.â€ť
In the end, despite the entreaties of the anglers association, Save The Bay, Audubon and others, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission held off on adopting the new management system until it completed a study on the menhaden population.
Environmental groups say that thereâ€™s no question about herring numbers. They believe that especially with the uncertainties brought by warming waters and other climate-change impacts, this is the time for regulators to take a new approach to manage the important fish. The stakes for other animal species are too high to fail to take action, they say.
Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, points to the local resurgence of ospreys and, more recently, bald eagles, raptors that both feed on herring, in arguing for tighter fishing restrictions.
â€śItâ€™s a wonderful success story to see them back now. And they need food,â€ť she said.
She, Hittinger and Jarbeau, of Save The Bay, also say that the regulations on Atlantic herring will have an effect on river herring â€” alewives and bluebacks â€” and shad, which migrate back to freshwater systems in the spring to spawn. While they are distinct species from Atlantic herring, they can sometimes be found in the same waters off the coast before moving inland and have been caught in trawl nets.
River herring numbers are improving in large part because millions of dollars have been spent on removing dams and building fish ladders on rivers like the Pawcatuck and the Saugatucket. Those projects would be undermined if not enough is done to prevent river herring from being inadvertently caught, Kerr and the others say.
They support the creation of zones stretching 25 nautical miles from shore that would exclude midwater trawlers. Others, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, are pushing for even larger exclusion zones of 50 nautical miles from shore.
But Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze, a seafood distributor based in North Kingstown, said in written comments to the New England Fishery Management Council that there is no scientific basis for the exclusion proposals.
Rick Bellavance, a Rhode Island charter boat captain and vice chair of the councilâ€™s Atlantic herring committee, said that under the latest assessment for the species, stocks are down but, tellingly, overfishing is not occurring. He said he hasnâ€™t decided which among several management options he is leaning toward, but his aim is to keep the fishery open while trying to maintain a sustainable resource.
Whatever happens when the full council meets Sept. 25, other fisheries will be affected, he said. With the reduction in the herring quota for next year, the bait industry is facing a shortfall, which could put pressure on menhaden, skate and other species that could be used as alternatives in lobster traps. It could also force lobstermen to ration their bait.
â€śItâ€™s an important fish,â€ť Bellavance said of herring. â€śI think the options in Amendment 8 offer better long-term solutions for managing the fishery. As long as we do our due diligence, ultimately weâ€™ll pick the right choice.â€ť
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