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BECAUSE HERRING ARE REALLY DARN IMPORTANT…

We all need to weigh in on Draft Amendment 8, and we need to do it now!

By Capt. John McMurray

A lot of us have been fortunate enough to have been in it when stripers were crushing big 8- to 10-inch sea herring.

Those readers who’ve been around for a while know exactly what I’m talking about—true awesomeness—fish well over the 40-inch mark, acting like dumb ravenous schoolies mowing though schools of the long, silvery bait. I’m talking gannets dive-bombing all over the place, giant stripers chasing herring under the boat, double and triple hook-ups with 30 and 40-pounders on plugs and even fly gear, and dudes yelling and screaming. All out mayhem! Yep. It was pretty darn cool when it was on.

Back in the day, we could almost count on a solid bite early and late in the season, when the herring came in. Think Montauk in November, or the New York Bite in April and/or December.

It wasn’t just stripers either. Some years, big bluefish and bluefin tuna fed on herring well within sight of land. I remember quite clearly fishing a herring aggregation in late December and having 300-yards of 20-pound braid disappear from my reel in under 30 seconds before I even knew what to do.

So what happened? Why don’t we see those herring anymore?

Well, no one can say for certain. Could be that they all moved north with changing ocean conditions. Or maybe their range just isn’t what it used to be because there are less around.

While Atlantic herring aren’t technically “overfished,” there are certainly some really smart people who believe the current method of setting catch limits for herring is too risky and does not sufficiently account from predator interactions. Indeed, there’s growing evidence that the Atlantic herring population is not at a “healthy” level. And there’s some scuttlebutt that a new stock assessment, scheduled to complete peer-review this year may tell us just that.

It’s not unreasonable to believe the decline and outright disappearance, at least in my neck of the woods, may have had something to do with the proliferation of the large, industrial, mid-water trawls.

These are those big boats that often fish in pairs, towing nets the size of football fields, catching millions of pounds of herring when they aggregate in nearshore waters. It is one of those high-volume/low value fisheries (think menhaden) that must catch A LOT for it to be profitable.

The New England small-boat commercial fishermen, pin-hookers, herring purse seiners, the charter/party boats and of course anglers aren’t terribly fond of the mid-water trawl fleet. Because once they move into a particular area and start raking up all the bait, and scattering the stuff that doesn’t get caught, not only does it disrupt the food chain, it kills the fishing—for everyone. And that just sucks.

That’s not all… Bycatch (fish unintentionally caught in those big nets) is pretty high in this fishery. What’s of most concern right now is the extraordinary amount river herring (alewives and blueback) that get caught when these boats are in nearshore waters. So much so that the Mid Atlantic Council and the New England Council put in river herring catch-caps that close the fishery when a certain amount of river herring are estimated to be caught. Although that certainly doesn’t seem to have fixed the problem (Note: this warrants an entirely separate blog.)

There are A LOT of folks who believe that mid-water trawls are, at least to some extent, responsible for the decline and outright crash of several river herring runs, particularly in Mid Atlantic rivers that used to host sizeable river herring numbers. Given that, theoretically, an entire river’s run of blueback could be caught in single tow, we get it.

The bottom line is this: Herring need to be managed better. Specifically, they need to be managed with all the stakeholders in mind, not simply the harvesters.

“Localized depletion” of the herring resource, primarily triggered by mid-water trawlers, is real. Yes, the science is thin on this, but it’s a matter of common sense. When you remove millions of herring from a relatively small area, well, there will be millions less herring for predators to feed on. Not only does this disrupt the entire marine food chain, but it screws-over small-boat fishermen that depend on those aggregations for access.

And absolutely, herring need to be managed with their role in the marine ecosystem in mind. Letting such high-volume fisheries into the inshore area to take biomass out of the ecosystem at that magnitude when there are so many species rebuilding is unwise to say the least.

Draft Amendment 8

Finally, after years of pleading by stakeholders, the New England Fishery Management Council – the body that manages Atlantic herring – took these issues up in the development of Draft Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan.

The draft amendment has two main components. Developing and setting catch limits that account for herring’s role as a prey species, and addressing localized depletion.

After spending the last three years developing the Amendment, the Council is now soliciting feedback from the public on alternatives before taking final action in September.

Here’s how you can help

The Council is currently accepting comments on the draft Amendment through Monday, June 25.

We need you to email your support of the amendment to the Council at comments@nefmc.org with “DEIS for Amendment 8 to the Atlantic Herring FMP” in the subject.

It doesn’t have to be long!

Here’s what we recommend saying:

  • I support managing Atlantic herring for their vital rode as a prey species.
  • I support a year-round prohibition of mid-water trawlers at least 25 nautical miles from the shore. Alternative 5 and Alternative 6 would accomplish that.
  • Managers should adopt a forage-based control rule, which will benefit the fishery and allow for a more stable population of herring in the long term. It will also benefit the ecosystem and herring’s many predators.
  • The Council should select Alternative 2 because it maintains a higher biomass target in order to account for herring’s role in the ecosystem, and temporarily cuts off all fishing when a low biomass threshold is reached.

Feel free to cut and paste, but try and include some personal experience with herring if you have it.

Depending on how this shakes out, this could be a groundbreaking action for ecosystem-based fishery management, and specifically for addressing localized depletion. It’s important, because in case you haven’t figured it out yet, these problems exist in a lot of the high-volume/low value fisheries (i.e. menhaden, squid, mackerel, etc.), and this could be a blueprint.

But if lots of anglers don’t weigh in, well, the Council could take half-measures, delay or avoid doing anything all together.

So, do it now. Because herring are really darn important, not simply to anglers who benefit from local aggregations, but to local communities, to whales, dolphin, seabirds, etc.

 

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