Fishermen and river herring advocates are challenging the government for failing to protect sea herring, river herring, and shad from New England’s industrial Atlantic herring fishery.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the New England Fishery Management Council are required under recent law changes to take measures to stem the decline of sea herring, river herring, and shad populations—but has failed to do so. Public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing recreational fishing advocate Michael S. Flaherty, charter boat Captain Alan A. Hastbacka, and the Ocean River Institute in the lawsuit.
“The government is breaking the law by refusing to manage federal ocean waters to protect river herring,” said Mike Flaherty of Wareham, Mass. “It is the same tired game plan of delay, delay, delay, that has earned New England the dubious status of being the poster child for needing fishery management reform. Recreational fishermen have been sacrificing for years to bring back river herring but when these fish are in federal waters it’s open season on them. Despite the clamor from the recreational community to finally hold the commercial industry to the same rules as the rest of us, NMFS and the New England Fishery Management Council continue to turn a deaf ear to our concerns.”
The lawsuit challenges a new management plan amendment known as “Amendment 4” which goes into effect today. Amendment 4 was intended to implement recent changes in law requiring an end to overfishing through new science-based catch limits and measures to bring accountability to fisheries. Amendment 4, however, falls woefully short of the law and NMFS’s own guidelines for the new requirements. It fails to address river herring and shad at all, even though hundreds of thousands of pounds of these fish are caught, landed and sold in the fishery annually. Amendment 4 also neglects setting science-based catch limits, and NMFS recently carved out from the amendment changes to its monitoring program and other actions necessary to ensure accountability.
“Last year my fishing business was abruptly wiped out for the season because a fleet of midwater trawlers moved onto our fishing grounds and cleaned everything out in a couple of days,” said Captain Alan A. Hastbacka, who owns and operates a charter fishing business out of Chatham. “This plan should stop that from ever happening again but NMFS has declined to do anything meaningful about the fishery.”
“Without adequate protections put into place, fishermen are going to lose businesses they’ve dedicated their whole lives to,” said Roger Fleming, Earthjustice attorney. “They want recourse in the form of something very simple: NMFS, just follow the law.”
“Federal Atlantic herring and mackerel fisheries are being decimated by midwater trawlers that continue to indiscriminately scoop up our severely depleted river herring populations as senseless bycatch,” said Rob Moir of the Ocean River Institute. “Our rivers and our oceans are inextricably connected so when river herring migrate from rivers to spend seven years in the Gulf of Maine the impacts of these particular mega-midwater trawlers are felt most acutely both at sea and later in our watersheds when they fail to return.”
Atlantic (sea) herring, river herring and shad are critical components of the ocean and coastal ecosystem, providing a significant source of food for a variety of commercially valuable fish like cod, sought after sport fish like striped bass and tuna, and countless birds and mammals. Since 1985 there has been over a 90 percent decline in river herring populations, according to recent data. Shad is a separate fish species and similarly threatened. The most recent data from NMFS also shows there is new cause for concern about sea herring populations as well, especially those closer to shore. All of these fish populations have been hit hard by the emergence in recent years of an industrial midwater trawl fishing fleet that remains severely under-regulated. These industrial trawlers are up to 165 feet long and have the power to catch an entire run of river herring with a single haul of a net. When sea herring are detected, these ships often descend in packs and can strip mine an entire section of the ocean of fish—including river herring, shad and other species—in a matter of hours.
NMFS is the federal agency charged with managing our nation’s ocean fish in federal waters—typically those more than three miles off the coast—in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. River herring and shad spawn in state waters but generally spend the majority of their lives in federal waters.
In September, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission seeking development of a federal fishery management plan that would protect and help restore river herring and shad populations.