Troubled Waters for Atlantic Herring

Pity the lowly herring, an essential species getting little love these days from the government agencies that are supposed to protect them.

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Pity the lowly herring, an essential species getting little love these days from the government agencies that are supposed to protect them.

Everything eats herring—from whales to striped bass to seabirds. Without abundant herring stocks, the Atlantic food web doesn’t work. That’s why herring protection brings together a diverse coalition of interests that includes recreational and commercial fishermen, conservation groups and whale-watching businesses.

Sadly, two recent decisions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will have serious impacts on herring, and all of the species that depend upon them.

This month, NOAA denied a petition to list river herring as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

The NRDC, a member of the Herring Alliance, had filed a detailed petition documenting the severe decline in river herring populations and the need to protect river herring habitat and reduce their catch in East Coast industrialized fisheries.

But NOAA kicked the can down the road, saying it will instead set up a “working group” to study the issue. While NOAA contemplates the herrings’ fate, the dwindling population that remains will be caught by the hundreds of thousands and wasted by the industrial-scale mid-water trawl ships that vacuum East Coast waters with nets the size of football fields.

With ESA protection off the table for now, Earthjustice and its partners will double-down on our work with East Coast fishery managers to reduce the at-sea catch of river herring and protect their habitat.

Our recent victories to force federal managers to consider new regulations to protect herring from industrial trawlers at sea and to get barriers removed from the rivers in which they reproduce will help. But these victories will be undone if federal managers continue their “stall and study” tactics while at-sea harvests continue unregulated.

A second slug of bad news for herring came in July when NOAA rejected measures that would have required an observer on every industrial trawler and limited their current practice of dumping unwanted catch at sea. These ships scoop sea herring and everything else in their path by the ton, mostly for use as bait to fish for more valuable species like lobster.

The observer plan was a long-fought compromise between conservation groups, recreational and commercial fishermen, and (allegedly) the industrial trawlers. It had even won the approval of the New England Fisheries Management Council—the fisheries policy-setting body for NOAA.

NOAA worked hard to find a reason to kill the plan, trotting out the obscure federal “Anti-Deficiency Act” to claim it could not afford its share of the cost of putting monitors on every boat, despite the fact that under the compromise the industrial ship operators were charged with picking up any part of the cost NOAA couldn’t provide.

John Bullard, the Northeast Regional Administrator of NOAA, said, “We don’t have that money. It’s like requiring us to do something that we can’t do.”

The compromise plan gave NOAA as long as 2 years to work out the details of the cost-sharing arrangement. NOAA held one organizational meeting in 13 long months before pulling the plug; absurd, even by government standards.

The result is that now industrial mid-water trawlers—which can be as long as 165 feet—will continue to strip fish out of the Atlantic without monitoring and accountability.

From 2010–2019, Roger was a member of the oceans litigation team, working with fishing communities to promote healthy ocean ecosystems in New England.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.