Lawsuit Filed to Protect River Herring and Shad

Agencies failed to prevent population decline of river herring and shad


Roger Fleming, Earthjustice, (978) 846-0612


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 ext. 221

Commercial and recreational fishermen are challenging two government agencies for failing to protect river herring and shad from being caught and killed by Atlantic industrial fisheries.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service both are required to take measures to stem the decline of river herring and shad populations – and have failed to do so. Public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Martha’s Vineyard/Duke’s County Commercial Fishermen’s Association and angler Michael S. Flaherty in the lawsuit. 

"Our communities depend on a healthy and abundant fish supply for their prosperity," said Warren Doty, Executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. "The game of ping-pong between the Commission and Fisheries Service – where each agency points their finger at the other to act and does nothing themselves – has led to the continued steep decline of river herring and shad. It’s time for these agencies to take action and develop a plan that will rebuild our fish populations." 

River herring are a critical component of the coastal ecosystem along the Eastern seaboard, providing a significant source of food for a variety of fish, 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. Both of these fish populations have been decimated by the unregulated catch by industrial midwater trawl fishermen. These industrial trawlers are up to 165 feet long and can hold more than one million pounds of catch. Though these ships attempt to catch sea herring and mackerel, they also scoop up millions of river herring and shad as "bycatch," which are either discarded dead or sold along with these other fish as lobster bait.

"Recreational fishermen have been doing our part for years to ensure river herring populations have the chance to rebound," said Mike Flaherty of Wareham, Massachusetts "It’s time to close the loopholes and mandate the same from industry." 

The lawsuit challenges both agencies for failure to conserve and manage river herring and shad populations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act. These laws are in place to prevent overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, establish annual catch limits and accountability measures and minimize bycatch – leftover fish usually killed and discarded.

The ASMFC is made up of state fisheries managers from the entire Eastern seaboard whose authority for managing coastal fish species is primarily exercised in state waters. 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. Both agencies have done little to nothing to managing the slaughter of river herring in federal waters or to prevent the population collapse of river herring and shad. River herring spawns in state waters but generally spends the majority of its life in federal waters.

"We have an unregulated federal fishery for river herring and shad," said Roger Fleming, Earthjustice attorney. "We are calling on these agencies to do what the law requires them to do – conserve and manage these fish. The time to act was yesterday."

"Midwater trawling for herring and mackerel is an unsustainable fishing method that threatens all species of river herring, shad, groundfish, and other stocks through overfishing and the disruption of the ocean ecology," said Doty. "Midwater trawling undermines the viability of the traditional, more sustainable fishing methods we support."

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