Partnership Formed to Study River Herring Bycatch

River Herring. Photo Herring Alliance/Tim and Doug Watts

The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries is working with The Nature Conservancy and researchers from the School for Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth (MA) to sample the catch from small-mesh bottom-trawl boats that fish for sea herring and mackerel out of Point Judith, Rhode Island.

The researchers hope to use the information to help fishermen avoid schools of river herring (alwewives and blueback herring), whose numbers have declined precipitously in the last decade. Commercially valuable sea herring and mackerel use much of the same ocean habitat as the river herring, and it’s hard for some fishermen to tell the species apart.

This effort is an excellent example of
the fishing industry working in partnership with the environmental community toward shared goals of conservation and sustainability.

Fishermen seek to avoid catching river herring, calling one another to report sightings of the migratory fish, or relying on old stories about the fish’s behavior. Fishermen can’t sell the bycatch, as river herring are protected under fisheries law, and they know that the river herring are an important food source for cod, tuna, haddock and other species of valuable fish. Recovery of river herring will help rebuild an important link in the food web that supports New England’s multi-million-dollar commercial fisheries.

The partnership is working with an industry group called the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition to sample larger, midwater trawl boats, a project funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. But small boats also play a role in this fishery, so The Nature Conservancy provided funding to expand the program and sample Point Judith’s smaller boats. The project is an unusual collaboration among academia, fishermen, state fisheries agencies and the Conservancy.

“Rhode Island fishermen recognize the importance of river herring to our environment and history. This effort is an excellent example of the fishing industry working in partnership with the environmental community toward shared goals of conservation and sustainability,” said John Torgan, Director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.

For years, fisheries managers have suspected that river herring bycatch was part of the story of the species’ decline. The majority of sea herring fishing trips contained no river herring, but a few, in areas where the migratory river herring congregate, had very high numbers. The National Marine Fisheries Service observers program reported that bycatch of river herring from the Atlantic herring fishery ranged from 171,973 pounds to as high as 1.68 million pounds between 2005 and 2007.

Hiring researchers to sample the fish at the docks allows for a more complete picture. By checking at least half of all trips’ loads for bycatch, they will build a picture of not just how many river herring are being caught, but also where the fish are at different times during the season. And tissue samples are being collected for DNA analysis that will allow researchers to track each fish back to its native river.

For more information on this project: River Herring Bycatch

Related videos on river herring in Massachusetts:

Wareham River Herring Run


Herring Heroes: North River Herring Lift


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