According to the Herring Alliance, 2.5 million river herring were caught and killed each year between 2005 and 2008. These fish were likely dumped back into the sea.
Now, the river herring population along the East Coast is in severe decline. It is so severe that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a petition on Aug. 1 urging the federal government to list alewives and blueback herring, two types of East Coast river herring, as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Whether the designations, should they be made, would help stocks recover is questionable.
River herring are an anadromous species, which means they spend their lives at sea but travel upstream to spawn in fresh water.
Paul Earnshaw, president of the Buckeye Brook Association, says states on the East Coast are seeing major drops in herrings, around 75 percent locally.
“We run a monitoring program and we’re seeing major declines,” said Earnshaw. “Something is definitely wrong.”
During spawning season, which runs from early to late spring, a normal herring run in the brook was about 500,000, and Earnshaw said that’s a conservative number. Now the numbers are less than a tenth of that.
In 2003, according to Buckeye Brook data, there were 38,949 “buckeyes” in the annual run. In 2010 there were only 8,299.
This year, Rhode Island Department of Environment Management (RIDEM) data shows the number has jumped to more than 50,000.
Phil Edwards, fisheries biologist for RIDEM, said that this is the largest run they have seen since 2003, when data collection was started. However, he said that because of the mating cycle of herring, this number isn’t unexpected.
Edwards explained that herring venture out to sea and return to streams to spawn every three to four years. Looking at the herring count from 2008, which was approximately 34,000, a returning spawn of 50,000, three years later, is not atypical.
“It was a strong year,” he said, “But everything comes back to what happened 3 to 4 years ago. Runs do fluctuate up and down each year.”
Earnshaw says that though it would be great to pat himself and the Buckeye Brook Association on the back, he realizes that the natural lifecycles of river herring is most likely the cause of the increased run.
However, he knows that this year’s data is not the end-all-be-all.
Earnshaw believes that bigger issues need to be tackled. The biggest being offshore fishing.
Initially, sport fishing was blamed for the declining numbers of herring, and because of that Rhode Island has a law prohibiting anyone from “possessing” river herring, dead or alive. The herring were used for bait.
Earnshaw thinks the problem is “bycatch.” Bycatch refers to the unwanted marine creatures unintentionally netted while fishing for other species.
According to Earnshaw, the problem is offshore trawlers: huge fishing vessels that cast large nets and use sonar to pinpoint schools of fish. Though these trawlers search for things like halibut, butterfish and haddock – commercially marketable catch – they do sweep up various sorts of other marine life, including river herring, in their bycatch.
“There’s no way to filter out our fish from theirs,” said Earnshaw. “Once these fish are drawn up into these massive nets, they’re basically crushed to death under the weight of the other fish.”
Earnshaw said there are more than 1,500 vessels like this on the East Coast, and last year a trawler near Nonquit River scooped up 289,000 herring.
Though Earnshaw says there are no trawlers based out of New England ports, they do travel up the coast from southern ports to fish offshore waters.
Because the herring law in Rhode Island (there are also herring laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut) doesn’t govern offshore fishing, the trawlers get off scot-free.
Earnshaw thinks monitoring should be happening more frequently on board these offshore vessels. Today, he explained, monitors are allowed on board trawlers but only in certain areas of the ships, where their views of the catch are often obscured.
Another thing he hopes will occur with consideration of the petition is the prohibition of offshore dumping of bycatch, which usually consists of unwanted dead fish. Instead, trawlers should have to bring their catch to land, which means a higher expense for the fishers, but could mean the ability to process bycatch for a good use. This would also help monitor the amount of fish they’re catching unintentionally, a number Earnshaw believes should have a cap.
“There’s no limit to what they can catch,” he said.
If listed as “threatened,” Brad Sewell, senior attorney at NRDC’s New York office, said that the herring would get the protection and attention they need.
“Blueback herring and/or alewife would be better protected against such threats as bycatch and incidental catch in ocean fisheries,” he said, “and, depending on the specific river system, they will also be better protected from water pollution, river dredging, and/or the adverse effects of dams. Finally, protected status would increase desperately-needed monitoring and scientific research.”
The problem is not only about sustaining river herring, it’s a far-reaching issue that could begin to affect other species that rely on the herring as a food-source. Larger fish like striped bass and tuna feed on herring, as do mammals like dolphins and whales. Should the river herring population die out, numbers of these marine creatures could begin to decrease as well.
Earnshaw hopes the NRDC’s petition will be considered and improve regulations on offshore fishing.
“The petition will only further let the [National Marine Safety Committee] know that this is a serious issue,” he said.
In the past, other species have been “saved” because of petitions like this, and those at the NRDC hope that past evidence of effectiveness will prove their case.
“The shortnose sturgeon is a good example of a fish species that has been ‘saved,’ [or] rebounded, as a result of [Endangered Species Act] listing and the protections it provided,” said Sewell. “Shortnose sturgeon were once highly depleted but are now starting to recover in a number of rivers along the Atlantic coast…Another example: the Pacific gray whale has been recovered and even de-listed. At the other end of the spectrum, many marine species, such as numerous salmon, marine mammal, and turtle species – while still far short of recovery – have been saved from near certain extinction as a result of the ESA.”
Bob Ballou, Acting Chief of the DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, said that the petition would not have any direct bearing on Rhode Island.
“If there was a listing of river herring under the ESA, then there would be certain obligations that states would have to take to ensure protection,” he said. “For river herring, we’re already doing that. We have a strong program in place. There might be more potential impact in other states. I don’t see [it having] any impact [in Rhode Island.]”
The DEM’s regulation to protect river herring reaches three miles off the coast of Rhode Island, but Ballou said their partnership with the New England Fishery Management Council is helping to address the bycatch problem in federal waters.
The DEM’s work on fish ladders is another component to help save the herring population, said Ballou.
“We’re addressing the fish mortality and helping to facilitate habitat protection. We’re having a lot of success in those areas.”
The National Marine Safety Committee (NMSC) has 90 days to determine if the petition shows that the herring may be warranted for the title of “threatened.” If they agree upon that, they will have another year to collect comments and additional information, and yet another year after that to determine if the species will be listed.
Sewell hopes that precautionary measures will be put into place even before the herring’s “threatened” status is decided.
“While it may be several years before the species is formally listed, some protective steps can be taken in the interim,” he said. “For example, if a species has been proposed for listing but not yet listed, government agencies take extra precautions not to harm them.”
“There’s nothing we could change,” said Greg Wells about the timeframe. “They do fast-track some species depending on the need. Ultimately, it’s up to the federal government. That’s what we have to work with.”
Wells is an associate with the Northeast Fisheries Program and Pew Environmental, and though he hopes that action will be taken quickly, he realizes that there is the obligatory two-year waiting period.
Wells said his organization has seen a “severe decline” in river herring populations and that “landings” (when fish are brought to shore) have declined by 99 percent since 1950. Wells said the numbers returning to spawning areas have declined and that in Massachusetts some runs have been completely wiped out.
River herring will return to the same rivers annually, swimming back to their place of birth year after year.
“There are some rivers where we used to have hundreds of thousands of herring,” said Wells. “Now we only have hundreds.”
Earnshaw said projects like the dam removal at Pawtuxet River Falls are great for the fish and for the people.
“They’re creating gradual steps,” he said, explaining that shallow pools of water will allow the fish to “climb” to their spawning location. “They’ll still have the falls, but it’s a functional fish ladder.”
And, he says, it doesn’t look like traditional fish ladders, which are usually made out of wood or metal.
Some contend that the reason for declines in herring numbers is due to climate and sea level changes.
“I don’t doubt there’s a climate change taking place,” said Earnshaw, “but it’s been taking place for millions of years. Most species find a way to adapt.”
And Earnshaw isn’t sure that the human race is entirely to blame for global warming.
“I don’t know if we’re causing it,” he said. “Will we survive as well as other species? Mother Earth has a way of taking care of things.”
Regardless of the effects of global warming and the rising seas, Earnshaw and supporters of the petition are looking to put stricter regulations on offshore trawling and bycatch standards.
“I’m really hopeful and have faith that the [NMSC] can understand the real issue,” he said.