Editor’s note: On June 18, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that neither alewives nor blueback herring warranted placement on the federal endangered species list at this time.
By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
A decision to add two species of river herring to the federal endangered species list is due from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) later this month, and it could have significant implications for southeastern New England.
Alewives and blueback herring, collectively called river herring, were once abundant in rivers and nearshore waters from Canada to South Carolina, but dams, climate change, and overfishing have contributed to their decline by as much as 98 percent.
“Historically, they used all the big and small rivers on the entire Atlantic Seaboard,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, who has been advocating for increased management of the species for years. “They were the fish that fed the settlers; they were everywhere. There’s even a story of General Washington feeding the troops with alewives.”
But, she added, the species have been at historic lows for decades.
River herring play a vital ecological role, according to scientists. They spawn in freshwater rivers and spend most of their lives at sea, so they carry nutrients to and from both ecosystems. They also provide food for an abundance of wildlife, from whales and seals to bluefin tuna, striped bass, bluefish, and seabirds. But as more and more rivers were dammed, the fish lost access to their spawning grounds and populations declined.
Rhode Island has had a ban on the capture or possession of river herring since 2006, which was imposed following a significant decline in fish numbers returning to local rivers, according to Phillip Edwards, a freshwater fisheries biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Herring numbers returning to area rivers have stabilized in recent years, though they remain well below the numbers seen in the late 1990s.
Efforts to install fish passageways and remove dams throughout the region, along with improvements in water quality, has opened up hundreds of miles of spawning habitat, but warming waters and drought caused by a changing climate have made it difficult for the species to rebuild their populations.
Fuller said the biggest factor in the decline of river herring populations in the past 20 years was the arrival in the Northeast of large fishing trawlers targeting mackerel and Atlantic herring.
“They came to the area in the early 2000s and had huge quotas for mackerel and Atlantic herring, and they scooped up tons of river herring as bycatch,” Fuller said.
Since river herring from the same spawning river tend to swim together when at sea, she said the trawlers may have captured almost all of the river herring that spawn in certain rivers.
“Some river populations haven’t recovered since the advent of mid-water trawlers when all the other factors suggest that they should have rebounded by now,” she said. “I don’t want to put a black hat only on industrial fishing, but it’s one significant factor we need to reduce to rebuild the river herring population.”
The management of the fisheries for mackerel and Atlantic herring has made it difficult to take steps to protect river herring. Mackerel are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Atlantic herring are managed by the New England Fishery Management Council, and river herring are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
The commission is made up of representatives from area states, and the councils are made up of state and federal representatives. Fuller said the federal government is reluctant to manage river herring as a stock in a federal fishery management plan, and the courts have been reluctant to force them to do so.
However, the populations of mackerel and Atlantic herring experienced dramatic declines in the past year, which will likely result in a drastically lower fishing quota for those species. That could mean many fewer river herring will be unintentionally captured as a result.
“The crash of those two fisheries has changed the dynamic,” Fuller said. “It’s very important for those fisheries to limit their catch of river herring, and if quotas are low going forward, we could see an unexpected benefit.”
That potential benefit could impact the decision to list river herring as endangered.
The Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the federal government in 2011 to add river herring to the endangered list. Fuller noted that blueback herring that spawn in the rivers of mid-Atlantic states are especially vulnerable to extinction in the absence of federal management of the species because of their depleted status and the high proportion of the population that is caught by trawlers in southern New England waters.
“One way NMFS can avoid a listing under the Endangered Species Act is if it can show that there are adequate regulatory mechanisms in place, and federal management under a fishery management plan would do that, because the herring would have science-based catch limits, a coast-wide stock assessment, and increased monitoring,” Fuller said. “Federal oversight could potentially bring that stock back. But, in the absence of adding them to a plan, if they meet the criteria for listing as endangered or threatened, they should be listed.”
Fuller isn’t optimistic that the species will be added to the endangered species list, in part because the Trump administration has actively reduced environmental protections whenever it can.
“The agency will likely say that river herring don’t meet Endangered Species Act criteria for listing, that their numbers aren’t low enough,” Fuller said, noting that the government’s ongoing review of river herring populations hasn’t been made public. “If they’re listed, it would put a monkey wrench into federal management of mackerel and Atlantic herring. NMFS would do almost anything to avoid the endangered designation because they also manage those fisheries.”
If the decision is made to list river herring, Fuller said it could have significant implications.
“Then they’ll have to take reasonable and prudent measures to reduce bycatch,” she said. “That could involve time and area closures, more federal resources for science, more monitoring of the fisheries, more federal money to remove dams and open up more habitat and have better monitoring on the rivers. It would be big.”
Even if river herring aren’t added to the endangered list, they still may be in for additional protections. A bill has been introduced in Congress called the Forage Fish Conservation Act, which would provide federal management of river herring and other forage fish.
“It’s got bipartisan support because there are lots of recreational fishermen on both sides of the aisle who appreciate the value of healthy populations of river herring,” Fuller said.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.