Monday, January 3, 2011

River Herring Management in the Gulf of Maine

A river herring (photo credit: Chris Bowser)
Perhaps if John McPhee had written about river herring rather than American shad in his book The Founding Fish, there might be more of an interest in the former. As it currently stands, river herring - a term referring to both blueback herring and alewives - may be the lesser-known species of the anadromous Alosa genus, but they play an important role behind the scenes in commercial and recreational fisheries and ecology as a whole.
Speakers weighed in on the new management decisions regarding river herring in the Gulf of Maine at a Fisheries Roundtable discussion on Dec. 16 at the Portsmouth Library. The Fisheries Roundtable series is sponsored by N.H. Sea Grant and The Northeast Consortium.

"River herring tend to get attention while they're in the river, but once they leave the rivers to head towards the ocean, they're out of sight, out of mind," said Jake Kritzer, senior management scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. "Up until recently, they haven't gotten the management attention they need."

In addition to being excellent bait fish for lobstermen and sport fishermen, river herring are important forage food for cod, tuna, striped bass, seabirds, marine mammals and a whole host of other species in the wild. Kritzer also noted their role in upstream transport of phosphorous, carbon and energy as they migrate into rivers and lakes to spawn and subsequently die.

River herring populations began to drop off precipitously in the late 1960s along the eastern seaboard, continuing the downward trend and leveling off at very low populations in recent years. Maine is regarded as the state with the best model for managing river herring, as their populations are generally stable and recovering from the previous decline. The same cannot be said for herring in other states, including New Hampshire.

Kritzer explained that the cause for the decline was likely a variety of factors, including lack of upstream fish passage/presence of fish barriers, directed harvest, contaminants, sedimentation, poor water quality, invasive species, and bycatch issues. Each river system is unique, and that makes teasing out the real problem much more difficult.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is implementing Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Managemet Plan for shad and river herring. This amendment seeks to prevent further decline in river herring abundance, improve understanding of bycatch mortality, and increase data on the fishery'e stock dynamics and populations. It will require the closure of all herring fisheries by January 1, 2012, except in systems with sustainable fisheries. States can submit management plans to demonstrate sustainability, and New Hampshire Fish and Game is currently working on developing a plan for the state, Kritzer noted.

Plans will require the collection of catch and effort data and biological data, and must provide increased protection for native and migratory populations in state waters through management actions, Kritzer explained.

Patrick Keliher, director of the Bureau of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat at the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries (Maine DMR), said Maine met the ASMFC sustainable fisheries requirements by collecting biological data, calculating annual mortality estimates for each run to establish population baselines, limiting harvests, and providing spawning escapement for approximately 43% of the population.

"We take the management of this species very seriously," he said. "River herring are linked to many other species, so we want to continue to see improvement in their populations."

Bycatch in the small mesh fisheries - including gill nets and small purse nets - are still a problem, he said, mostly because the herring caught are juveniles that have not yet reproduced. Lack of fish passage continues to be a major issue in Maine as well, he added.

An unusual law in Maine allows towns to have management rights over their "municipal fisheies." Towns must submit annual management plans that are reviewed by the Maine DMR more critically now than in previous decades, Keliher said.

Jamie Cournane from the Environmental Defense Fund briefly discussed the development of Amendment 5 to the Atlantic herring fisheries management plan, a proposal that seeks to address herring bycatch at sea. Currently, bycatch at sea is unmanaged and unmitigated. Researchers have identified herring "hot spots" where they are most abundant along the east coast of the U.S., so Cournane said a variety of management goals are now being considered to protect the species.

Joan Trial, biologist from the Maine DMR, is working to improve alewife populations in the St. Croix River watershed that encompasses both Maine and New Brunswick. In addition to the impediments facing most other river herring runs, Trial said that the goals of the numerous stakeholders involved are often at odds with each other. For example, despite biologists' recommendations, the Maine legislature has been reluctant to remove dams on the river. The introduced smallmouth bass populations that attract anglers and bring in tourist dollars to the local economy must also be protected, shuttling precious financial resources away from the herring restoration.

Despite these impediments, the Maine DMR is moving ahead with their management plan to protect both herring and smallmouth bass populations on the St. Croix River. One audience member noted that with the price fishermen could receive from herring, restoring their populations might be a "potential gold mine for the poorest county in the state [Washington County, Maine]."

Depite Maine's efforts to implement herring management plans, other states are lagging behind. The plans require data collection on all the rivers that the herring utilize, and without funding to back the research, states along the east coast may have to shut down the herring fisheries, Keliher said.


  1. I agree with everything said in article except the ridiculous notion that river herring may be in some way bad for smallmouth. This smallmouth issue has been disproved scientifically by outside, unbiased groups. What is preventing restoration of rh to the St. Croix is stubborn yankee pride. Having fought so hard to keep alewives out for this guide is going to admit to having been wrong. In the 1980's Spednic Lake was THE premier smallmouth fishing destination. That was when the river was still open to alewives.

  2. Very interesting! Do you have a source for the science that supports that rh and smallmouth don't compete?


    Try that Erik.

    What I really want to find, are the awards handed out and displayed in various lodges on Spednic from the 80's.

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