Save The Bay works toward a sustainable Atlantic herring fishery

Save The Bay works toward a sustainable Atlantic herring fishery

by Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett Baykeeper

You may remember that last fall, Save The Bay joined a coalition of like-minded partners to advocate for strong, ecosystem-based management measures in the Atlantic menhaden fishery (see Fall 2017 Tides article). The importance of menhaden and other forage fish to the health of Narragansett Bay cannot be denied. They perform the critical function of converting plankton and other tiny nutrients into food for larger fish to eat, and abundant menhaden support healthy levels of fish, birds and seals. While while our preferred measures were not adopted, we gained significant support and hope to see an ecosystem-based approach to managing this fishery in the next few years.

Altantic Herring
Altantic herring (Clupea harengus)

In the meantime, we have another opportunity to protect another key forage species—the Atlantic herring. Like Menhaden, Atlantic herring are a keystone species and the mainstay in the diets of striped bass, tuna, cod, and many of the birds and mammals that live in the Narragansett Bay watershed. Unfortunately, Atlantic herring aren’t doing very well. A new stock assessment this summer showed that the population is struggling, leading the New England Fisheries Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to take an emergency measure reducing the 2018 allowable catch catch by more than 50 percent, from 110,000 metric tons to 49,900 metric tons.

The New England Fisheries Management Council has been working on an amendment to the herring management plan for many years. Like last year’s menhaden proposal, the herring plan includes a measure that would set catch limits based upon the fish’s role as a forage fish, which Save The Bay supports. Under the current structure, Atlantic herring limits are largely based on past catch totals, which can lead to wide stock variations from year to year and extreme uncertainty regarding the future health of the fishery.

We also support the Council’s consideration of an inshore “buffer zone” that will protect Atlantic herring from the localized depletion and conflicts caused by large, industrial midwater trawlers, which can quickly harvest hundreds of thousands of pound of fish from a small area. Their harvest techniques affect other species that feed on herring, as well as the recreational fishermen, charter boats and others who make a living on the water. We believe a 25-mile buffer that includes the waters off of Narragansett Bay will help protect the Bay ecosystem, including river herring that gather offshore to make their way up our rivers and streams and are often caught by midwater trawl vessels as unwanted “bycatch.”

Opponents of these changes come mostly from the commercial fishing industry. Atlantic Herring are an important bait for the lobster fishery, and some in the industry are concerned about unintended side-effects on other fisheries. This is exactly why all fisheries need to take ecosystem considerations into account; in the end, all stocks will benefit from these science-based management techniques and reduce year-to-year uncertainty about the populations of fish.

We recently met with Gov. Raimondo’s staff and R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit to share our views on Atlantic herring. Rhode Island took a strong lead in advocating for menhaden protections last year, and we encourage the state’s delegation to the New England Fisheries Management Council to do the same when they meet at the end of the month to consider these new herring management measures. A healthy, vibrant Narragansett Bay depends on forage fish like Atlantic Herring and benefits each and every one of us.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, Sept. 25, the New England Fisheries Management Council voted to adopt two important conservation-based management measures in the Atlantic herring fishery. One measure requires more conservative catch limits for herring, leaving millions of pounds of fish in the water to perform their critical functions in the ecosystem. While Save The Bay, joined by the R.I. Saltwater Angler’s Association and Audubon Society of R.I., advocated for even stronger protections, this is an important first step. The Council also passed a coastal buffer zone prohibiting large mid-water trawl vessels from fishing within 12 miles of the coast in most locations. This will help protect Narragansett Bay and our coastal habitats, improve recreational opportunities, and help prevent River herring from being caught as bycatch before they can make their way up our rivers and streams to spawn.