Depleted herring stocks are cause for concern

The head of Tashmoo Pond is one of several Island locations that historically supported thriving herring runs.

The head of Tashmoo Pond is one of several Island locations that historically supported thriving herring runs.

A new stock assessment confirmed that river herring — alewife and blueback herring — along the Atlantic seaboard are depleted, with many populations in a dangerously diminished state.

“The report confirms what many in the community already knew about our all-time low numbers of river herring,” said Steve Pearlman, coordinator of the Watershed Action Alliance of Southeastern Massachusetts. “We need better management measures, supporting the calls of commercial and recreational fishermen, watershed groups, bird watchers, conservationists, and other groups that care about these important fish.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)’s stock assessment subcommittee (SASC) provided the 2012 River Herring Stock Assessment Report and it was reviewed by a panel of expert scientists in a peer review on May 1. Of 24 assessed stocks, 92 percent were found currently depleted and one was increasing, while 28 of 52 examined rivers lacked sufficient data to determine the stock’s condition, according to a press release from the Herring Alliance.

This was the first river herring stock assessment to examine ocean bycatch of the fish, which includes all herring caught, sold, or discarded. According to the report, at-sea fisheries are a significant factor in the decline of the species’ populations over the last 50 years. Some years, over 2 million pounds of adult and juvenile river herring are killed incidentally by at-sea fisheries, if not more.

The number of alewives and bluebacks that return to rivers each spring has greatly decreased. The assessment’s peer review says that the coast-wide run of river herring was likely in the hundreds of millions of fish in the early 17th and late 19th centuries. Today, individual runs number in the thousands or fewer. The SASC concluded that “ocean bycatch is an issue, and that recovery will require management on multiple fronts.”

From June 19 to 21, the New England Marine Fishery Management Council will consider management provisions that would help protect these fish in federal waters by limiting bycatch, among other proposed actions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently determined that these forage fish should be examined for protection under the Endangered Species Act, initiating a year-long scientific process. This new assessment and peer review confirms fears about the condition of river herring — more needs to be done to protect these ecologically vital fish before they are lost altogether.

The natural cycle of returning alewives was witnessed and welcomed by the Wampanoag Indians who first inhabited the Island, followed by early European colonists who exploited the many productive runs around the Island where fresh water mixed with the salt.

The arrival of the silvery fish, prized by some for the taste of their roe and others for their value as bait for striped bass, is still anticipated by Islanders. But in recent years, fewer and fewer herring have returned to the long-standing run at the head of Menemsha Pond owned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the briefly thriving Richard F. Madeiras Herring Run at the head of Lagoon Pond, which was restored more than a decade ago by a group of volunteers and is managed jointly by the towns of Oak Bluffs and Tisbury.

The diminishing numbers of returning herring, even by modern standards, prompted state fisheries managers to prohibit the taking, possession, or sale of herring in 2006, effectively closing all herring runs in the state.

The Herring Alliance is a coalition working to protect and restore ocean wildlife and ecosystems along the Atlantic coast of the United States through precautionary and science-based management of herring, mackerel and other forage fish. For more information, please visit HerringAlliance.org.