We must act now to protect Atlantic herring

It would support fishing, whale watching and keep our ocean ecosystem thriving


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New Englanders have been fishing for herring for centuries. Whether to sell as bait, can for local seafood lovers, or use for fertilizer, we’ve scooped up herring by the millions. But despite modern advances in fishing gear, we’re catching way less herring today than we did a hundred years ago.

In 1902, when operators were using small, engine-powered seine nets and stationary gear like weirs and pound nets, they caught 162 million pounds of herring in just the Gulf of Maine. Yet in 2017, the now heavily industrialized herring fishery caught just 110 million pounds of herring throughout all New England’s waters. Ninety-nine percent of the cause of the herring population decline is due to mobile net gear that kills fish before they can reach their proper spawning grounds.

The collapse of the herring industry coincided with the proliferation of engine-powered seiners that killed ripe adults before they could reproduce. They also can cover much more ground than the herring fishermen of 100 years ago, including in waters far offshore. Despite their capacity, they are failing to catch as much herring as their predecessors because the fish aren’t there.

New science shows that the number of Atlantic herring is declining and the species is, in fact, at its lowest point since its population crash in the 1970s.

Fishery managers must heed the warning signs to head off a complete collapse. To rebuild these fish, they should start by recognizing and respecting the important role herring plays in our marine ecosystem. Herring are key food for many of our iconic New England marine predators, including humpback whales, puffins, cod, tuna and striped bass. Leaving enough herring in the ocean to feed these animals is necessary if we want a healthy ocean food web in our region.

The latest research shows that so-called “forage fish” like herring should be managed differently than other fish species, because of their role as prey; their populations should not be fished down so low.

Managers in New England have the tools and the information they need to set catch limits appropriately for forage fish, and they should do it. Managers can also protect herring populations and the predators that rely on them by protecting key areas from intensive fishing.

Industrial trawlers, some of the biggest fishing vessels on the East Coast, should not be allowed to fish close to shore in sensitive habitats when they can catch herring offshore. Public opinion is behind this idea: During the comment period this spring, thousands asked managers to keep these boats 50 miles from shore and allow only smaller seines and fixed gears close to the coast.

We’ve lived through the virtual collapse of the striped bass population during the early ‘70s, the resurgence during the late ‘90s, and now another decline. Sport fishing for stripers, and bluefish for that matter, is a huge industry along the East Coast. The reduction in available forage fish not only affects the population of fish, but also, as the population drops, the revenues to the various states involved with the fishery.

In our combined experience — decades on the water as a recreational fisherman, studying marine history and educating the public about the ocean — we have learned about the past, present and future of New England’s fishing history and our marine environment. We can see why it is important to leave herring in the water: to support recreational and commercial fishing, whale watching and to keep our ocean ecosystem thriving.

We urge New Hampshire’s fishery managers to vote the right way when the New England Fishery Management Council meets in September to decide the future of Atlantic herring. A strong control rule and a large buffer zone may be our best chance to bring herring back, and with it a healthy, diverse ecosystem our coastal communities need to thrive.

Dr. William Burgess Leavenworth has 20 years of experience as a sailor, fisherman and crew boat captain. Dave Shirley is an outdoor writer with 50 years of recreational fishing experience.

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