River Herring and Shad

By Mathew D'Alessio

Shad and river herring are "anadromous" fish which means that they spend majority of their lives in the ocean, and only return to freshwater in the spring to spawn. Traditionally, these fish spawned in almost every river and tributary along the East Coast.

Due to their large numbers, species of shad and river herring did at one point support a large commercial and recreational fishing program along the Atlantic coast. However, the blockage of rivers by dams and other manmade barriers, combined with habitat degradation and overfishing, have severely depleted their population. Recently, a benchmark stock assessment for American shad was completed and indicated that most stocks have significantly declined and do not appear to be recovering. This has become a major concern due to the fact that shad and river herring provided an abundant food source for wildlife and opportunities for commercial and sport fishing.

Many organizations, including the Pew Environment Group, have spent huge amounts of time working to restore river herring and shad runs in Maryland by monitoring water quality and cleaning up waterways, among other activities. The Maryland legislature has dedicated millions of dollars toward restoring coastal estuaries and rivers by regulating pollution and restoring habitat. In addition, Maryland recently implemented a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing for river herring.

Despite inland habitat restoration work and severe restrictions on fishing, river herring and American shad populations remain very low. The impacts of depleted river herring and shad runs extend beyond our coastal communities and into the oceans. River herring and shad are essential to the predators like striped bass, bluefish, ospreys and dolphins. With river herring and shad occupying the ocean for the majority of their life the fish become an unwanted part of fisherman's catch. Ocean by-catch in trawl fisheries is believed to be a major source of river herring and shad mortality. Even though the trawl fisheries target other species of marine life, river herring and shad are still caught and killed in those trawling nets, impeding recovery of the population. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center estimates that millions of river herring and shad are caught every year by industrial mackerel and Atlantic herring trawlers. Some recent legislation was passed to initiate the recovery of this species.

"In May of 2009, Amendment 2 of the ASMFC fisheries management plan for shad and river herring was adopted in response to continued declines in river herring abundance.  Coast wide commercial landings had decreased 93% between 1985 and 2007. Amendment 2 requires the closure of all commercial and recreational fisheries by January 1, 2012 with exceptions for sustainable fisheries. States are required to submit Sustainable Fishery Plans (SFP) to the ASMFC in order for any fishery to remain open. The plan must prove the fishery will not diminish potential future stock reproduction and recruitment, detail how the state will monitor the fishery and set a target level at which the fishery would no longer be considered sustainable." (River Herring Moratorium, http://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/calendar/events/75/river_herring_draft_faq_may_2011.pdf)

Due to the fact that current policy does very little in regulating ocean fisherman the Pew Environment Group suggested that the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (MAFMC) should take the lead on federal management of river herring and American shad including science-based conservation and management measures. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Incorporation of river herring and shad as stocks within the federal fishery management plan for Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish. This action would afford river herring and shad direly needed conservation and management measures in federal waters.
  • An interim cap or limit in 2013 on river herring and shad catch in the mackerel fishery.
  • 100 percent at-sea monitoring on all mid-water trawl fishing trips, including assigning one observer to each vessel in a pair trawl operation. This fleet of approximately 20 mid-water trawl vessels is responsible for over 70% of combined river herring and shad incidental catch.
  • An accountability system to discourage the wasteful slippage, or dumping, of unsampled catch. All catch must be made available to fishery observers for systematic sampling.
  • A requirement to weigh all catch.

Are these goals realistic and if they are obtained does it provide a viable solution? Are there any other approaches to this problem? The Pew Environmental Group has some excellent resources on this topic, including a video and a fact sheet.

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