Suit Filed Over Failure to Protect River Herring

Illustration courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Commercial and recreational fishermen are suing 2 government agencies for failing to protect river herring and shad from being caught by Atlantic industrial fisheries.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) both are required to take measures to stem the decline of river herring and shad populations, and have failed to do so, according to a recent email sent by the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association (RISAA). The angler-advocacy group reports that public-interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Martha’s Vineyard/Duke’s County Commercial Fishermen’s Association and RISAA member Michael S. Flaherty in the lawsuit.

River herring can no longer be harvested for food and bait in their natal streams. Photo by ## Tom Richardson##

“Our communities depend on a healthy and abundant fish supply for their prosperity,” said Warren Doty, Executive Director of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association. “The game of ping-pong between the [ASMFC] and the National Marine Fisheries Service—where each agency points their finger at the other to act and does nothing themselves—has led to the continued steep decline of river herring and shad. It’s time for these agencies to take action and develop a plan that will rebuild our fish populations.”

River herring are a critical component of the coastal ecosystem along the eastern seaboard, providing a significant source of food for a variety of fish, birds and mammals. Since 1985 there has been over a 90-percent decline in river herring populations, according to recent data. Shad is a separate species, but similarly threatened. The groups filing the lawsuit claim that both species have been decimated by the unregulated catch of industrial midwater trawl fishermen operating largely in the Gulf of Maine, where river herring and sea herring spend much of their lives. The industrial midwater trawlers are up to 165 feet long and can hold more than one million pounds of catch. Though these ships attempt to catch sea herring and mackerel, they also scoop up millions of river herring and shad as unwanted “bycatch,” which are either discarded dead or sold along with these other fish as lobster bait.

“Recreational fishermen have been doing our part for years to ensure river herring populations have the chance to rebound,” said Mike Flaherty of Wareham, Massachusetts. “It’s time to close the loopholes and mandate the same from industry.”

The lawsuit challenges the ASMFC and NMFS  for failure to conserve and manage river herring and shad populations under the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cooperative Management Act. These laws are intended to prevent overfishing, rebuild depleted stocks, establish annual catch limits and accountability measures, and minimize wasteful bycatch.

The ASMFC is made up of state fisheries managers from the entire eastern seaboard whose authority for managing coastal fish species is primarily exercised in state waters. NMFS is the federal agency charged with managing our nation’s ocean fish in federal waters—typically those more than 3 miles off the coast. River herring spawn in state waters but generally spend the majority of their lives in federal waters.