There has been a lot of news on the fishing-related websites and blogs recently about forage fish, primarily herring and menhaden. Truthfully, a complete discussion on forage would encompass a much wider range of species, but I think that I’ll at least narrow it down to the major ones.
Herring, specifically river herring, should be a hot topic. It is that time of year when town Herring Wardens get to see what has come back to rivers in towns all along the New England coast. Word has it that a bunch of rivers are looking good. They’re not where they should be but a heck of a lot better than they have been in the last few years. Some of this is due to in-stream restoration projects that now are paying off, and some is due to efforts to minimize the high seas interaction with sea herring caught by so-called mid-water trawling, both single vessel and pair trawling.
The in-stream work is fairly easy to measure. Restore the habitat in the watershed or rebuild or create fish ladder access to spawning grounds, wait a couple of years, and count the increase. These are very prolific spawners that grow relatively quickly, so gratification, while not instant, is pretty darn quick.
The at-sea interaction is a lot harder to measure for a number of reasons, but the main one is the sheer volume of fish caught in the sea herring fishery. It is fairly normal to have 200,000 pounds of herring and whatever else in a net. The volume is so great as to require that the contents are vacuumed out into the boat’s fish hold. An onboard observer may pull samples of a tote at certain points in the transfer process. If they pull a total of 100 pounds, there is a one in 2,000 chance that they will see any bycatch such as river herring. Those are not good odds. In some cases, even if they do get some in the sample, only a trained eye can distinguish the difference in herring species. In sum: it is likely that managers still do not have a good handle on the actual catch of river herring on the high seas. If the truth be told, there probably is not a good handle on bycatch in general in the northeast sea herring fishery. The New England Fishery Management Council has been working on it, but it has been a hard slog.
A lot of in-stream work still needs to be accomplished, but that will be a function of funding and some hardworking local folks to pull it all together. As mentioned above, that work can be very satisfying as the results are relatively quick and easily visible. In the spring, herring runs usually attract a lot of excited visitors, so positive feedback and PR help the process.
Sea herring seem to be managed fairly well, and their spawning success is predicated upon the environmental conditions at spawning time and the ability of managers to control access to spawning aggregations of sea herring. No matter how well managers do, there will always be fluctuations in the population. The major consideration of scientists that advise the managers on setting catch levels should be leaving enough resource for predators such as tuna, striped bass, whales, cod fish, etc. to feed on.
When I was on the NEFMC, there was an effort to put in place a measure to weigh all sea herring so that managers could get a realistic handle on what amount was being caught. Managers were using guesstimations, and in my opinion that is not good enough. NOAA’s regional office rejected that effort as being too onerous. Funny that 125 million pounds of lobster all get weighed in the state of Maine, and that is not considered onerous. It is considered smart business. In any case, a recent action may put in place at least a volumetric measure requirement.
As for menhaden, most of the catch of this forage species is in the Mid Atlantic. There have not been any major migrations of menhaden, like we used to see in the 1980s, north of Cape Cod for a number of years. I keep hoping that there will be, as they bring a whole host of predators that like to feed on them.
Some steps have been implemented by the ASMFC to control the harvest of menhaden. For 2013 there was a 20-percent reduction over the average catch for 2009-2011. The biggest issue has been how this has been enforced, or not enforced, by different states. Rhode Island was 7 percent over. New York was 421 percent over. Delaware was 234 percent over. Maryland 34 percent over. The Potomac River Fisheries Commission was 41 percent over. Florida was 152 percent over. Because some states with decent sized quotas were under, the total quota was just about on target at 2 percent under. A long list of folks will be pushing for a fair and equitable enforcement policy to be put in place. There also should be measures that do not allow states like Maryland to have a bycatch fishery after the quota is taken.
What I am not aware of is whether the catch is weighed or volumetric conversion to weight. That may vary state to state. We will have to see what the reduction does for overall populations in the next couple of years. It would certainly be great to get back to the 80s when massive schools moved all the way up into mid coast Maine. There were a lot of happy predators and a lot of happy anglers.
It should be obvious, but sustainably managing forage species has implications far beyond the fish themselves. If managers allow forage stocks to collapse, many other species will follow. Luckily, folks are paying attention, and it seems like things are moving in a positive direction.