The species known as shad and river herring are managed by the ASMFC Shad & River Herring Management Board. Each of the species involved in this plan are anadromous which means they spend most of their lives at sea but return to freshwater to spawn, usually in the spring.
Mostly, when ASMFC refers to shad, the species being discussed is American shad. Technically the management plan covers another species known as hickory shad, however, to state that ASMFC “manages” hickory shad would be an exaggeration. Shad can be found anywhere along the East Coast but mainly in the mid-Atlantic and southern states.
The last coast wide stock assessment for American shad was done in 2007 and found stocks to be at an all-time low. The assessment blamed overfishing, pollution and habitat loss due to dam construction as the primary reason for the decline in the stocks. The authors of this site can find no evidence that Hickory shad have ever had a stock assessment.
The term river herring refers to two species, alewife and blueback herring. These two species should not be confused with Atlantic herring (aka sea herring or black-back herring), which reside 100% at sea and are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council.
Alewife can be found between Newfoundland and South Carolina, while blueback herring range from Nova Scotia to Florida. Both species make their way up creeks and rivers in the spring to spawn in fresh water; however, both spend most of their lives at sea.
The ASMFC has jurisdiction on state waters out to three miles from the coast, which means the ASMFC plan does not manage river herring where they spend the bulk of their lives. To make things more confusing, unlike Atlantic or “sea” herring, which spend time in both state and federal waters, ASMFC does not have a joint management agreement to address federal waters management.
To open harvest a state must now provide scientific evidence that the numbers of fish in any individual run are healthy and the planned harvest is sustainable. The proposal must also include a monitoring plan and have an automatic contingency plan in case the numbers in that run begin to decline.
Historically Important Fish
For as long as there have been people living along the East Coast, there has been recreational and commercial harvest of both shad and river herring. No study of the developing United States could ignore the importance of these species to the culture and economy of coastal America. At one time before steam engines and technology taught humans how to harvest fish from the deep sea, the shad and river herring fisheries were amongst the most important fisheries in the nation.
Federal agencies can’t seem to agree if shad and river herring need conservation and management. River herring have long been listed as a “Species of Concern” and the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Office web site has some great language describing what is supposed to be a “Proactive Conservation Program.” Over the past 20 years, well above 25 million tax-payer dollars and countless private funds have been spent improving river conditions via dam removal, restoration of spawning habitat and installation of fish ladders. Today the available spawning areas for river herring are more than double that of 20 years ago. Yet the species is in far worse shape today than in 1996. Apparently, this Proactive Conservation Program is only applicable to in-river conservation because when it comes to managing these fish at sea, NOAA/NMFS officials, both from the Northeast Fishery Science Center and from the Northeast Regional Office openly discourage management at sea at both the New England and Mid-Atlantic Councils.
Do you know what is different over the last 20 years? Over that same time federal waters have seen development of the industrial bait fishery for both Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel. These two fisheries have been considered responsible for the largest amount of human-caused mortality at sea, but no management body wants to hold onto this extremely hot potato.
The bulk of the Atlantic herring fleet also targets Atlantic mackerel under management by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC). Pretty much everything I wrote about the Atlantic herring fishery also applies to the Atlantic mackerel fishery. In October of 2013, the MAFMC voted NOT to add river herring to the Mackerel, Squid, Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. Again, this decision was made while acknowledging the mackerel fishery sells an unknown but large amount of river herring mixed in with the mackerel when sold as lobster bait, and discards even more as by-catch. This past October (2016) the MAFMC did revisit their decision. Guess what happened? Of course the MAFMC decided it is not responsible for the conservation and management of river herring at sea. Of course they dressed up this horrible decision with a bunch of rhetoric about how much effort they were putting into an ASMFC high level thinking committee that is known as the Technical Expert Working Group (TEWG). I’ll get back to the TEWG in a moment.
As I mentioned earlier, a significant influence in the decision to not manage river herring in federal waters by both NEFMC and MAFMC is the mixed messaging coming from the federal government. The NMFS Office of Protected Species puts out some great info graphics about river herring being a Species of Concern, but over and over again officials from NMFS make statements during council discussions that clearly indicate they do not support at-sea management. In addition, NMFS has recently approved increases in by-catch caps and decreases in observer funding needed to monitor the industrial bait fishery.
If river herring had wings, they would have been managed at sea years ago. It appears those of us that care will have to wait for a major change in the status quo…until some fisheries leader, until some federal judge or maybe even a rogue politician decides it’s time to force some entity to manage river herring at sea where they spend most of their adult lives.
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