New England fishing regulators on Tuesday approved two measures aimed at conserving the dwindling Atlantic herring stock.
The New England Fishery Management Council approved a rule that “establishes a long-term policy that will guide the council in setting catch limits into the future” at a meeting in Plymouth.
Such an option will result in more herring being left in the water “to serve as forage and be part of the overall ecosystem,” according to the council. Under that proposal, catch limits can be adjusted based on new information.
Additionally, the council approved a measure aimed at preventing midwater trawlers from fishing too close to shore for herring. The boats are banned from fishing within 12 miles of shore, an area stretching from the Canadian border through Rhode Island, that includes areas east and southeast of Cape Cod, according to the council.
Recent surveys have found that the Atlantic herring population in the Gulf of Maine is at risk of collapse. The fish provide a crucial source of food to species that include cod, striped bass, and humpback whales.
Last year, the region’s herring population dropped to an estimated 239,000 metric tons — a nearly 90 percent drop from the species’ peak in 1967, according to a stock assessment this year.
Environmental advocates, that have been pushing for years to protect the herring stock, hailed the new measures.
“The council is taking a bold step in choosing to manage herring differently, and it should be commended,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, in a statement. “After years of requests from scientists, recreational fishermen, and the public, this amendment recognizes the critical role this species plays in our ocean ecosystem. These rules will make a long-lasting difference for herring, its predators, and the businesses and communities that depend upon a healthy fishery and a healthy ocean.”
Shaun Gehan, counsel for Sustainable Fisheries Coalition, a group of harvesters and processors from North Carolina to Maine that includes three companies in Gloucester, had a different take.
The council’s decisions, he said, would “make it very, very difficult to catch even the low amounts of herring that are going to be allocated for the next three years.” The measures are going to hurt lobstermen, and commercial fishermen who catch herring and mackerel, he said. The region’s lobster fishery chiefly uses herring as bait.
“What the council did today is inconsistent with law,” he said.
His group would have preferred the council choose an alternative that would have allowed 14,000 more metric tons of herring to be allocated to fishermen over the next three years, he said.
The council’s decisions came at a crucial time, according to a statement from The Pew Charitable Trusts, as this year’s stock assessment for Atlantic herring “projected a steep decline for the population, causing NOAA Fisheries to take the unusual step of cutting this year’s catch limit while in season to forestall even deeper cuts in the years to come.”
Peter Baker, a director of US ocean conservation for Pew, credited the council for “being among the first to follow a public, science-based process with concrete actions to conserve forage fish.”
“Protecting these sensitive areas from intensive fishing and rebuilding the herring population will directly benefit marine wildlife and the coastal businesses that depend on them,” said Baker in a statement.
Zach Cockrum, the director of conservation partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation’s northeast regional center, said herring “are at a dangerous tipping point.” He called Tuesday’s approvals “a step in the right direction” before adding that his organization would have liked to see the council “listen to the series of New England recreational anglers who testified in favor of even stronger limits on ever-growing mid-water trawlers.”
“No one who depends on herring – anglers, the commercial fishing industry, or marine predators – are served well by dwindling populations and boom-and-bust cycles,” he said in a statement.
The council now will finalize the measures, which are part of an amendment to the federal fishery management plan for Atlantic herring. The board then will submit its decisions to NOAA Fisheries for review. NOAA Fisheries has the final say on whether the measures will be approved, and that agency is responsible for implementing the final rules, according to a spokeswoman for the council.