By Pam Lyons Gromen –
I have good news from Freehold, New Jersey where the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council met last week from June 10-12. The Council’s newly-formed River Herring & Shad Committee significantly reduced the allowable bycatch of imperiled blueback herring, alewives and shad for the 2015 Atlantic mackerel fishing year to help these important prey species recover.
New Jersey, like most other east coast states, is a river herring moratorium state, meaning it is illegal to take any alewife or blueback herring in state waters because of their severely depleted status. Just a few miles off the coast, however, mid-water trawlers in pursuit of Atlantic sea herring and mackerel capture tons of anadromous river herring and their equally at-risk relative, the American shad, as bycatch every year. Because mid-water trawl vessels are high-volume, a single bycatch event can devastate a river-specific run of river herring or shad, crippling inland restoration efforts.
Last year, thanks to a groundswell of support from Wild Oceans supporters and numerous other like-minded fishing and conservation groups, the Mid-Atlantic Council adopted the first-ever federal waters river herring and shad bycatch limit that went into effect at the start of 2014 in the mackerel fishery. The New England Council also approved a bycatch cap for its Atlantic sea herring fishery, which could begin this year pending National Marine Fisheries Service approval.
However, the Mid-Atlantic Council’s 2014 bycatch limit of 236 metric tons (mt), set by the Council’s Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish (MSB) Committee, was higher than what was actually caught in recent years, contrary to the Council’s stated goal of reducing bycatch for these vulnerable species. The higher limit was chosen so the mackerel fishery could potentially catch its entire quota, something that has not happened in the history of the American fishery. In fact, in the last five years, the mackerel fishery has only caught an average of 10% of its annual quota.
The responsibility for recommending the 2015 shad and river herring cap was moved to the Council’s new River Herring & Shad Committee this past April. Among other directives, this new committee’s priority, as stated by the Committee’s chairman, Dr. Lee Anderson of Delaware, “is to do the best thing we can for river herring and shad.” And the committee lived up to this promise in Freehold.
The river herring and shad cap was reduced significantly for 2015 – from 236 mt to 89 mt, an amount that is based on the median river herring and shad catch from 2005-2012. For each metric ton reduction in bycatch, an estimated 11,000 river herring and shad will be left in the water to rebuild populations to levels where they can once again fulfill their critical ecological role as prey while supporting valuable in-river fisheries for our coastal communities.
The council-approved measure also features an incentive for mackerel trawlers to avoid river herring even if mackerel availability improves. If the fishery is able to take more than 10,000 mt (less than half the new 2015 mackerel quota but more than they’ve actually caught in recent years) without going over the 89 mt river herring bycatch limit, then the cap can be adjusted upwards, not to exceed 155 mt, for the rest of the season. So the fishery will be held to a low absolute number of river herring and shad bycatch and the rate of bycatch will be kept low throughout the year.