Fed upon by a long list of ocean wildlife from whales to seabirds to tuna, Atlantic herring is the linchpin holding together the food web in New England waters. On September 25th at its meeting in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the New England Fishery Management Council took groundbreaking action to better manage Atlantic sea herring and to protect its vital ecological role as forage.
The action, Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan, establishes a new catch control rule that leaves substantially more fish in the water as prey (over 30 million pounds over the next 3 years) than the current catch-setting methods used by the Council. Amendment 8 also establishes a buffer zone, extending 12 nautical miles from the shorelines of the New England states (even farther around Cape Cod to encompass a known river herring bycatch hotspot).
Industrial mid-water trawling is prohibited in the buffer zone year-round to protect sensitive habitat, feeding grounds, and other fisheries dependent on herring. Mid-water trawl vessels are the largest vessels in the fishery, and they often work in pairs, towing a net, up to 200-feet long, between two vessels. Millions of herring can be quickly removed from a relatively small area, sweeping up other animals in the process. Importantly, Amendment 8 recognizes and preserves opportunities for small-scale gears (e.g., weirs and purse seines) to harvest Atlantic herring within the buffer zone.
Three years in the making, Amendment 8 responds to the calls of thousands of diverse stakeholders who urged the Council to consider the importance of herring to other users of the resource – the striped bass, tuna and cod fishermen who rely on a healthy forage base of herring to sustain their target predators and the ecotourism businesses who count on the presence of herring schools to attract whales and seabirds. The New England Council is the first of our regional councils to employ a stakeholder-driven process to evaluate options for managing a heavily targeted forage fish, and to act on the results of that evaluation. This is also the first time that a regional council has acted to address localized depletion of a forage fish.
While the specific alternatives Wild Oceans supported were not chosen, (we had advocated for a 50-mile offshore buffer and a control rule that would have preserved a higher biomass of forage), they absolutely advance the goals we set out to achieve. The action the New England Council took is remarkable and timely. A newly-released herring assessment concludes that the stock is in dire shape, and if the current trend of poor recruitment continues, the stock could decline to an overfished condition. Leaving more herring in the water is more important now than ever.
Amendment 8 could be implemented in 2019, but it must first be reviewed and approved by NOAA Fisheries. Wild Oceans and our allies stand ready to usher Amendment 8 through to a final rule.