The countdown is on to the final vote by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) regarding river herring.
It’s been a long process, said Paul Earnshaw, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition and member of the River Herring Alliance. Earnshaw said they’ve been leading up to this vote for roughly three years, collecting data, monitoring herring stocks and pleading with the council to take action.
Now, on June 20, after months of hearing public comments, the NEFMC will make their final vote on whether or not to take steps to protect dwindling river herring stocks.
On Monday, the Conservation Law Foundation sent an email urging supporters to email their state’s governor and NEFMC members to urge them to implement stronger river herring protection regulations.
The email outlined the following as crucial elements to the herring’s survival: “Immediate implementation of a river herring catch cap to control the catch of these critical forage species; 100 percent at-sea monitoring on industrial trawl ships to provide accurate estimation of all catch, including catch of river herring; [and] an accountability system to discourage the wasteful slippage, or dumping, of catch, including a fleetwide limit of five slippage events for each herring management area.”
Mark Gibson, deputy chief of the Fish and Wildlife division at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and NEFMC member, said the council is considering several options to protect the river herring.
Environmentalists are supporting the catch cap solution, where a real time monitoring program conveys how many river herring have been caught. Those in the fishing industry support a “move along” option, where a monitoring system notifies them if a population of river herring is in the area. If there are a certain number of herring, the fisherman must “move along.” Another option being considered is the closure of “hot spots,” or known spawning grounds. Those in the fishing industry oppose this idea because it doesn’t give them the option to initially check the waters for river herring, which may not be present.
Of course, there is the option to make no changes, but Gibson said it is highly unlikely the council will vote to leave things status quo.
“I’m very confident it won’t be status quo or do nothing,” he said, though he said the council “hasn’t taken a preferred position yet.”
Earnshaw said action needs to be taken now, or river herring stocks will continue to dwindle, possibly to the point of extinction.
“We’ve been seeing declines in herring for well over a decade,” he said.
Earnshaw believes a major contributor to the dwindling stocks is bycatch. When fishing vessels, like large offshore trawlers, aim to catch other types of fish like halibut, butterfish and haddock, they unintentionally sweep up various sorts of other marine life, including river herring. The herring and other unintended catches are known as bycatch. In an earlier interview, Earnshaw said these fish are usually crushed to death in the weight of the nets.
Herring, said Earnshaw, is not a fish that humans would eat, but is sometimes used in things like cat food and fertilizer. Since the herring is often undesirable to those fishing for commercially marketable, edible fish, the dead herring are dumped back into the water.
By placing on-board observes on these trawlers, Earnshaw and advocates believe bycatch and dumping issues will be, at least partially, resolved.
At the last meeting of NEFMC, Gibson said the catch cap option seemed to garner the most support from the council.
Earnshaw said the protection of these fish is vital to the ecosystem, since many other species feed on herring to survive. But despite concerns, the population of local river herring is on the rise, which Gibson said is a promising sign.
This year, Buckeye Brook herring tallied 90,625, up dramatically from 2004’s total of 5,010.
Gibson thinks a combination of environmental factors (like increased rainfall) and measures taken by activists have helped ramp up stock numbers.
Still, Gibson said they’re a long way off from ideal counts. At Gilbert Stuart, a location they’ve been monitoring for years, 300,000 herring were recorded in 2000. In 2005, that number plunged to 7,000, but is back up to 108,000 for this year.
“We’ve turned a corner and are making some progress,” he said.
Although the NEFMC has been considering public comment for months, Earnshaw supports the idea to contact the governor and NEFMC members as a final push.
Earnshaw sent a letter to the governor personally, and although the governor does not directly deal with the NEFMC, its members do ultimately answer to him.
“It’s the best show we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “We’ve definitely got their attention.”