Atlantic herring are not doing well.
A recent stock assessment revealed a population in sharp decline. Recruitment—the number of new fish entering the population—has fallen to historic lows over the past five years. In response, the New England Fishery Management Council (Council) recommended capping 2018 harvest at the same level as the actual 2017 harvest, 53,665 metric tons, less than half of the original annual catch limit (ACL) of 110,000 metric tons.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reviewed the Council’s recommendation, and decided that the 2018 ACL had to be reduced even further, to 49,900 metric tons, a cut of nearly 55 percent.
In making the reduction, NMFS explained that “We agreed with the Council’s representation to reduce 2018 catch but determined that further reductions are necessary to reduce the risk of overfishing in 2018. Therefore, we are further reducing the [Inshore Gulf of Maine] and [Georges Bank] sub-ACLs by a total of 3,775 mt, resulting in sub-ACLs for the four management areas totaling 49,900 mt. We expect the reduction to reduce the probability of overfishing in 2018, increase the estimated biomass in 2019-2021, and provide for more catch for the fishery.”
Atlantic herring are arguably the most important forage fish in the Northeast. They are preyed upon by a host of marine mammals and seabirds, along with a number of commercially and recreationally important fish species, including silver hake (“whiting”), white hake, red hake (“ling”), cod, pollock, summer flounder (“fluke”), bluefish and striped bass. They also support an important bait fishery, with the majority of the herring caught used as bait in the New England lobster fishery.
That being the case, reducing herring landings becomes a two-edged sword. The reductions are necessary to protect the long-term health of the stock, but they will create a hardship in the lobster fishery, and will probably drive lobster fishermen to seek out other sources of bait, which could create new problems. And if the reductions were not put in place, there was a possibility that the 2019 ACL could have been set as low as 15,000 metric tons.
Thus, the new 49,900 metric ton harvest cap was clearly the best alternative available to fishery managers. It will help to stabilize the stock, at the same time that the Council considers other management measures, including the pending Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan which, if adopted, could ban large mid-water trawlers from inshore waters, in order to preserve a large enough local population of herring to attract and hold species such as striped bass and bluefin tuna.
We will keep readers informed as the various herring issues develop.