Recreational fishing groups have filed a lawsuit in the D.C. District Court challenging a decision by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to terminate a plan to protect river herring and shad in the Atlantic Ocean.
Last June, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council initiated an amendment (Amendment 15) to a fisheries management plan known as the Mackerel, Squid, and Butterfish Fishery Management Plan to recover depleted river herring (Alewife and Blueback) and shad (American and Hickory) populations. Serious concerns had been raised by scientists, managers, fishermen, conservation groups, and other members of the public because hundreds of thousands of river herring and shad are caught and killed in the mackerel, squid and butterfish fishery without any management plan or meaningful regulatory protections. Coast wide, populations of these fish have dwindled to historically low levels. Unfortunately, in October 2013, the Council and NMFS voted to terminate development of Amendment 15 and instead voted to establish a multi-year study group designed to operate outside of the legal mandates for U.S. fisheries management.
Earthjustice represents New Jersey-based Anglers Conservation Network and Captain Paul Eidman, New York’s Gateway Striper Club, and Massachusetts Herring Warden Philip Lofgren in this matter.
Industrial fishing boats drag nets as wide as a football field often catching tens-of-thousands of pounds of non-targeted species in a single net tow. As the industrial fishing fleet grew during the 1990s, fisheries scientists documented a dramatic decline in forage fish like river herring and shad.
“Without healthy forage fish populations, the entire ocean ecosystem unravels,” said Captain Paul Eidman of the Anglers Conservation Network.
“The Magnuson-Stevens Act is crystal clear that all fish stocks requiring conservation must be included in a fishery management plan that will bring them to recovery,” said Roger Fleming, Attorney at Earthjustice. “Sadly, fisheries managers entrusted with assuring the health of America’s fish for all types of fishermen and the public, decided to punt on first down.”
“In the past 15 years, striped bass anglers along the Atlantic coast have witnessed the depletion firsthand,” said Captain Eidman. “Just like our fathers and grandfathers did each spring, surf fishermen would head to a local spillway, dip a net down into thousands of river herring, grab a few for bait, run to the beach and live line them for big bass. Now you are lucky to see even a single herring in the same spots. It’s no accident that this decline coincides with the introduction of super-efficient pair trawl ships off our coastlines. The practice of dumping incidental catch overboard at sea is insane and has to be monitored and stopped.”
“We joined this lawsuit in an effort to support the conservation of forage fish, which are critical to the health of a striped bass fishery that we are very passionate about,” said Louis DeRicco from the Gateway Striper Club. “If the largely unregulated harvest of river herring and shad is allowed to continue it threatens the future of the Atlantic Coast striped bass population that is already in decline.”
River herring and shad are vitally important forage fish in the ocean ecosystem. As “anadromous” species that spawn in rivers but spend the majority of their life cycle at sea, they play a critical role in the biology of rivers, estuaries and ocean waters along the Atlantic seaboard as prey, or “forage”, for many species of fish, birds, and marine mammals. These species include striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, bluefin tuna, marlin, sharks, ospreys, loons, herons, bald eagles, egrets, kingfishers, harbor seals, porpoises, whales, and river otters. River herring and shad are particularly critical to striped bass because in the spring when river herring and shad swim up the coast and enter into freshwater rivers, striped bass follow feeding on them en route to their own spawning grounds.
“Public comment favoring this amendment was 37,000 in favor to one against,” said Fleming. “Regional Administrator John Bullard, Council Member Lee Anderson of Delaware, and Jeff Kaelin of New Jersey’s Lund’s fisheries, who led the charge to kill this amendment, should be held accountable for their actions. Political pressure brought by the industrial trawl industry should not be allowed to trump the recovery of one of the keystone species upon which so much of the entire East Coast fishing industry and related business depends.”