Sunday, October 9, 2016
WHITHER RIVER HERRING AND SHAD
By now, anyone who follows fisheries issues probably knows that, last week, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council decided not to designate shad or river herring as “stocks in the fishery” under the Council’s Fishery Management Plan for the Atlantic Mackerel, Squid and Butterfish Fisheries.
That disappointed a number of recreational fishing and conservation organizations, who were pressing the Council to take a more active role in shad and river herring management.
Both shad and river herring are anadromous species, which means that they spend most of their lives in salt water, but ascend freshwater streams and rivers to spawn. A couple of years ago, John Waldman wrote the book Running Silver, its title meant to convey how streams looked when the shad and river herring filled them from bank to bank as they made their annual spring spawning runs.
Today, such runs have dwindled, and some have disappeared completely. Restoring runs of river herring and shad is one of the greatest tasks facing state fisheries managers all along the East Coast.
I can appreciate that, for when I was young, the tidal reaches of the Mianus River, a western Connecticut stream, “ran silver” with river herring from sometime around Easter until well into May. Schools of fish flooded the river at high tide while, at the low, some actually turned on their sides and tried to wiggle over and around the exposed stones and mussel beds, using tiny trickles of water to reach the base of the dam that stymied most herring’s efforts to spawn.
Such dams caused problems for a lot of shad and river herring runs, and explain, in part, why the Council decided not to take action—because so much of the fish’s problems were tied to the shore, and thus outside the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Service, after a long stretch of largely ineffective actions, finally adopted meaningful measures to regulate shad in 2010, and river herring in 2012. However, such measures apply mostly to state-waters fisheries, and perhaps to some directed fisheries a short distance offshore. Conservation groups are quick to point out that the shad and river herring are running into serious problems out in the open ocean, too.
“river herring and shad spend most of their lives in the ocean, where they school with other fish species, including those targeted by fishermen in federal waters, which start three miles from shore. Recent genetic analysis shows that river herring originating in mid-Atlantic rivers are being swept up in federal waters by trawlers seeking Atlantic herring, mackerel, butterfish, longfin squid and whiting.”
Preventing such bycatch, and minimizing the resultant discard mortality, is the responsibility of federal fisheries managers which regulate all of the fisheries involved.
The problem is, there isn’t much hard science available to guide federal actions. Pew points out that
“The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is planning stock assessments for river herring and shad for 2017 and 2018, a NOAA technical expert working group for river herring is compiling information; a River Herring and Shad Committee and Advisory Panel serves the Mid-Atlantic Council; and council staff members have compiled significant work analyzing river herring and staff issues.”
That is all true, but at the same time, there is no information on hand today, and no guarantee that there will be information on hand next year or the year after, that will allow NMFS to determine reasonably accurate reference points that could be used to set biomass and fishing mortality thresholds for the various shad and river herring stocks.
Thus, given ASMFC’s current involvement, the lack of reliable data and the amount of work that would be required to devise a shad and river herring management plan, the Council voted overwhelmingly against putting such a plan in place at this time.
In Amendment 14 to the squid, mackerel and butterfish plan, NMFS adopted rules that allow closer monitoring of major participants in those fisheries, which will better allow federal observers and port samplers to check for shad and river herring bycatch in such fisheries. In addition, unless the safety of the vessel is at risk, or the net is filled with spiny dogfish (which are extremely difficult to handle, and can have their own conservation issues), trawlers are not allowed to dump netfuls of fish at sea, so that they might conceal instances of high river herring bycatch from onboard observers.
Amendment 14 also provided for the establishment of a bycatch cap, which would shut down the mackerel fishery once a preset poundage of shad and river herring were caught.
That all sounds fine, but the effectiveness of such regulations depends upon the good will of fishermen and the availability of fisheries observers, to factors which, when taken together, comprise a very fragile structure on which to base the health of already overstressed stocks.
Although members of the Council originally sought observer coverage as high as 100% on trawlers in the mackerel fishery, and at lower but still significant levels in the case of other fisheries covered by the management plan, such requirements were ultimately not adopted by NMFS.
Instead, the great majority of vessels will sail without observers, and when unobserved fishermen are faced with the choice of either 1) taking nets filled with shad and/or river herring on board so that such fish will be counted and included in a cap that could easily shut down their fishery, or 2) dump the fish dead at sea and not recall them at all, thus better insuring that the fishery, and their personal incomes, will not be impeded, it’s probably safe to assume that in most cases, human nature, and the second option, will prevail.
That means that shad and river herring’s recovery may hinge on the continued involvement of ASMFC, and the continued efforts of state fisheries managers to rebuild the stocks.
Again, that creates a perilous situation for the fish to be in, for while state fisheries managers, on the whole, are dedicated professionals who want to do the right thing, they often find themselves in constant battle against legislators who fail to appropriate enough funds to cover the basic requirements of a fishery management program, and also against pressure from higher-ups in the state capitol who place short-term political, economic or public relations considerations above the biological needs of fish stocks.
That fact was recognized by at least one advocate for better shad and river herring management, David Sikorski, who represented the Coastal Conservation Association’s Maryland chapter. Mr. Sikorski and the anglers who he represented wanted to see the fish brought under federal management because
“It’s where we have legal protections on species that can guarantee conservation.”
He recognized that state fisheries managers don’t operate under the same legal framework and, when politics intervene, conservation considerations can, and too often do, fall by the wayside.
Michael Luisi, a marine fisheries manager from Maryland, amply illustrated why advocates such as Mr. Sikorski should be concerned. He expressed concern that imposing hard caps on shad and river herring bycatch, and presumably implementing a federal rebuilding plan for shad and/or river herring, could in fact shut down the squid, mackerel or butterfish fisheries, and called such shutdown a “big deal.”
Apparently, he doesn’t consider a collapse of shad or river herring stocks, which wouldn’t take any money out of the pockets of the big industrial trawlers, a “big deal” at all…
Roger Fleming, an attorney for Earthjustice, a conservation group specializing in litigation, which has already beat NMFS in a shad and river herring-related lawsuit, announced
“There’s no question that we’re going back to court to challenge this.”
He seemingly acknowledged and dismissed Mr. Luisi’s comment with two simple, reasonable sentences, saying
“But that’s the point. You design measures that don’t let them fish at the same rate that they’re killing [shad and river herring] now.
Advocates for shad and river herring conservation certainly hope that Earthjustice will prevail. However, even if it doesn’t, it is likely that NMFS, at the request of the Council, will take additional incremental actions, similar to those that they have already put in place, in order to further reduce shad and river herring bycatch.
If NMFS doesn’t take such actions, and if the stocks continue to decline, anglers and conservationists are likely to push for the “stocks in the fishery” designation to be considered once again.