BOSTON (June 18, 2012) – For the first time, comprehensive management measures for industrial mackerel fishing were established to help protect river herring and shad, crucial forage fish, and the marine ecosystems they support. After years of wide-ranging support led by the Herring Alliance, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), the organization responsible for management of fisheries in federal waters off the mid-Atlantic coast, passed key regulations.
During its meeting in New York last Thursday, the council voted in favor of important reforms to the industrial mackerel fishery. The MAFMC voted to recommend 100 percent at-sea observer coverage on industrial mackerel trawlers and a commitment to develop an annual limit on catch of river herring and shad throughout the mackerel fishery, two goals the Herring Alliance has campaigned toward over the past few years.
However, late in the game, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) argued for the status quo and convinced the council that they could not take quicker or more substantive action on priority items, such as the immediate addition of river herring and shad as stocks in the mackerel management plan. The federal agency’s advice resulted in delays rather than immediate action, though the MAFMC deserves credit for committing to the initiation of a new amendment to bring these depleted stocks into the management plan with full protections as soon as possible.
The NOAA officials also frustrated stakeholders, including mackerel fishing interests, with bureaucratic resistance to industry funding of more observers, including inexplicable claims that additional observers, even if they were paid for by the industry, would be unaffordable for the agency. They also failed to recognize or explain the success of an innovative pilot program written into its own regulations for the midwater trawl Atlantic herring fishery which limits the at-sea dumping of uninspected catch, a practice the agency acknowledges undermines observer data. The MAFMC considered new requirements for the mackerel trawlers based on the pilot program.
“The council showed a strong commitment to reducing bycatch of river herring and shad in the mackerel fishery,” said Fred Akers, member of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association. “Their actions were well-intended, and I hope they are not too little too late.”
The majority of the discussion and regulations targeted midwater trawlers. These industrial fishing vessels are the largest on the East Coast and catch hundreds of millions of pounds of sea herring and mackerel every year. In the process, they incidentally kill and waste vast amounts of other marine life, such as seals, dolphins, and whales, and important fish species such as bluefin tuna, striped bass, haddock, shad, and river herring. The current numbers of river herring and American shad are near their all-time lows, with populations along the Atlantic coast depleted by as much as 99 percent and ocean bycatch identified as a serious concern. These small fish are important forage fish that occupy the midpoint of the ocean food web.
Herring Alliance members reminded the council of the tens of thousands of public comments members have received in support of a river herring and shad catch limit. A letter from 25 members of Congress supporting a cap was cited at the meeting as another reason to vote for the limits.
Next week, the coalition will see river herring considered for further protections on the East Coast. In Portland, Maine, on June 20, the New England Marine Fishery Management Council will consider incorporating management provisions in the Atlantic herring fishery that would help protect these fish in federal waters by limiting bycatch, among other proposed actions.
The NOAA recently determined that river herring should be examined for protection under the Endangered Species Act, initiating a year-long scientific process. A recent stock assessment and peer review confirms fears about the condition of river herring – more needs to be done to protect these ecologically vital fish before they are lost all together.