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Victories For East Coast Forage Fish

A special thank you goes out to the thousands of Earthjustice supporters who took action over the last few months by writing to the fishery management councils. Your voices made a huge difference.

After a long struggle, we just concluded two great weeks in the campaign to protect forage fish, some of the most important fish in the sea.

I want to share with you some of the details about what happened.

Atlantic herring is the Northeast’s most important ocean fish—it is the “main course” for countless species of larger fish, marine mammals and sea birds. Atlantic mackerel, river herring and shad are similar to Atlantic herring and make up another big piece of the East Coast’s forage menu. In recent years, the largest fishing ships on the East Coast have harvested these fish and wreaked havoc on our ocean ecosystem. Until this month, these fisheries were severely under-regulated.

On June 14 this year in New York, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) voted through Amendment 14 to the region’s Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan. The Amendment has been a cornerstone of our Northeast forage fish campaign work with conservation groups and recreational and commercial fishing industry partners for the past three years.

The campaign goals for Amendment 14 were to:

  1. Enact a comprehensive at-sea monitoring program in place for the industrial scale midwater trawl mackerel fleet; and
  2. Establish a cap (limit) on how much river herring and shad could be killed by the industrial mackerel fleet each year (both are severely depleted fish populations caught as "bycatch" in this fishery).

The MAMFC‘s final amendment recommends that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) provide a federally-approved observer on every industrial trawler in the mackerel fleet, and several related program changes. It also voted to implement the fishery’s first river herring and shad catch cap, meeting our goals. In addition, the council voted to require that all catch be brought on board vessels for monitoring and that all catch be weighed. These provisions will bring much-needed oversight to the fishery.

On June 20, the New England Fishery Management Council met in Portland, Maine and finalized new rules for the Atlantic herring fishery, known as Amendment 5. For nearly five years, we partnered with fishermen and conservation groups from all over New England to bring accountability to this fishery as well.

Similar to the Mid-Atlantic Council, the New England Council voted to require that a fishery observer be placed on every industrial trawler, implementation of a river herring catch cap, that all catch be brought on board vessels for monitoring, and that all catch be weighed. New England also instituted a heightened set of monitoring requirements for when these vessels fish in sensitive cod and haddock spawning grounds.

It is hard to believe that industrial trawlers have been allowed to catch more than 300 million pounds of herring and mackerel each year while federal fisheries regulators simply took the vessel captain’s word for what was on board, or that historically monitored as few as 3 percent of the annual fishing trips taken. But that was the case until this month.

These types of campaign victories for forage fish are the product of incredible team efforts, built by a strong coalition of conservation organizations, commercial and recreational fishermen, and other marine stakeholders.

Earthjustice Attorney Erica Fuller and I have spent countless hours over the years providing counsel and policy advice to our campaign partners and clients. In addition, we brought litigation which included:

  1. A suit requiring consideration of measures to protect groundfish closed areas,
  2. Litigation to get copies of federal observer program video footage and related documents showing operations on industrial trawl vessels,
  3. A suit tightening provisions for a trial groundfish closed area monitoring program that will now be applied fishery-wide, and
  4. Our recent victory on Amendment 4 to the Atlantic herring plan regarding the failure to include river herring (and other bycatch) protections in this plan. We even pursued a conflict of interest complaint under fisheries law that forced an influential industrial trawler representative on the New England Council to recuse herself (for the first time) from voting on all of the actions associated with passage of Amendment 5.

A lot of work remains to ensure these plan amendments are appropriately implemented. We must continue the transition in these fisheries toward “ecosystem-based” fisheries management in order to ensure that enough critical forage fish are left for the dinner plates of all oceans predators.

The Amendment 5 decision was well-received by local fishermen who had operate fishing boats in a sustainable way.

“It is about time that the industrial herring industry gets held to the standards the rest of us have been held to for years,” said Tim Linnell, a groundfisherman from Chatham, Mass. “100 percent monitoring for a gear that takes so much fish indiscriminately out of the ecosystem is not only necessary, but critical to understanding what is going on in that fishery.”

“Finally the council did for the herring fishery what every other fishery in New England has had to do for years: required them to accurately weigh and report their catch,” says Craig Poosikian, a commercial fisherman from Orleans, Mass. who fishes for striped bass, fluke, scup and sea bass. “No more honor system of estimating how much fish they caught. I welcome them to the club!”

The council will now send its final Amendment 5 document to the NMFS for approval.

Atlantic herring is the Northeast’s most important ocean fish—it is the “main course” for countless species of larger fish, marine mammals and sea birds. (Northeast Fisheries Science Center / NOAA)