New England's Atlantic herring fishery could be on the verge of collapse in some areas, and federal regulators have decided to immediately reduce catch limits. Conservationists welcome the move as a way to help populations recover, but advocates for the fishing industry fear extended quota reductions over the next few years.
Atlantic herring are often referred to as a keystone species because, like a keystone that supports other stones in an arch, herring is a go-to snack for a wide variety of other fish, as well as seals, whales and birds. Maine lobstermen also depend on herring as a preferred source of bait for their traps. But recent stock assessments have concluded that the species is in decline, prompting the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to reduce the catch for the balance of the current fishing season that ends early next year.
According to the Pew Chaitable Trust, where Peter Baker is the director of U.S. Oceans Northeast, it’s the right call.
"They put in measures that are going to slow the fishery down between now and the end of the year, so that there's not so much fishing now in the next three months that they have to take even more drastic reductions in 2019," Baker says.
The herring catch that has routinely run between 70,000 and 120,000 metric tons per year. The NOAA has ordered the current 100-thousand metric ton quota be halved to 49,000 metric tons for the remainder of the fishing season. In a prepared statement, the NOAA says that the temporary reduction should result in a larger herring population than the one projected under current catch limits, and it should increase herring landings when the new three-year season begins next year.
Baker says the greatest threat to the fishery is posed by large American industrial processing ships, which harvest thousands of the fish in selected areas with nets as large as a football field.
"When the big industrial fleet comes close to shore catching herring, they wipe out the school of herring, and then there's no reason for the striped bass and the tuna and the groundfish to stay there, because the reason they're in-shore is because they're there to eat the herring," Baker says. "So if the industrial fleet catches all the herring inshore, there's no fish for the traditional New England day boat fleet to go out and catch."
The herring fishery is generally the under the direction of the New England Fishery Management Council, but NOAA has the authority to step in when it believes conditions warrant.
Sport fishing advocate Patrick Paquette of Hyannis, Massachusetts says that even though NOAA is calling this a temporary reduction, he fears that the council will opt to adhere to the new limits for the three-year season that begins next year.
"What is likely to happen is that 2019 will get this rollover amount, and then the regulation will go in place and help set the long term number for 2020, 2021 and 2022," Paquette says.
The New England Fishery Management Council is scheduled to meet regarding the new harvest landings for the next year three-year season Sept. 24 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.