What do striped bass anglers, whale watches and bird enthusiasts have in common? Sure, they all enjoy spending time outdoors, but much of their passion owes to a tiny, unheralded fish: the Atlantic herring.

Regional fisheries managers are about to make a huge decision on Atlantic herring conservation that will reverberate across New England’s ocean and impact many species. You wouldn’t think such small fish could be such a big deal, but herring are a critical species, sustaining a huge range of wildlife, from marine mammals like humpback whales to sportfish like striped bass to birds like osprey. The New England Fisheries Management Council is set to vote on a new plan to manage herring at its meeting on September 25 in Plymouth, Mass., and the National Wildlife Federation supports strong action to conserve this important food source.

Scientific evidence shows the herring population is not at a healthy level, and an abundance of caution is needed to avoid the possibility of complete collapse. Stakeholders from all New England states have spent three years developing a plan that would preserve herring fishing by returning it to the traditional small scale fishery it had been for most of the 20th century.

Fishing technology has come so far, so fast, that fishing boats now have a huge advantage over herring. Instead of small boats making local trips, huge trawlers can now scoop up to a million pounds of herring out of the ocean in a single fishing trip. Despite herring being one of the most common fish on the planet, we now have the power to dramatically alter their populations in a matter of months. Worse yet, these large trawlers often catch predators that chase Atlantic herring, as well as river herring, another species extremely important to Connecticut’s freshwater streams.

Lack of common-sense long-term regulation has led to short-term shocks this summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut 2018’s herring catch limit in half and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission halted herring fishing entirely through September 30. Similarly drastic measures may be needed for next year’s fishing season. Without proper management, we’ll see more of this feast-or-famine trend, and fish and wildlife will suffer.

Thanks to a new proposed management plan from the New England Fisheries Management Council, we have a unique opportunity to protect herring and the whales, dolphins, birds and sportfish that depend on them.

In its new proposed management strategy, the Council can address these issues by adopting two new rules. First, it should ban mid-water trawlers within 50 miles of shore where most predators feed, catching river herring is of higher risk and localized depletion of Atlantic herring can impact ecosystems. Second, it should manage herring as a forage fish, which would mean ensuring a certain amount of the population remains unfished to benefit predators. These would be conservative measures that could minimize the boom-and-bust cycle of the herring population, providing stability for commercial fishermen and wildlife alike.

Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s fisheries and natural resource managers have long been strong voices for conservation of the smaller forage fish that larger marine life depend on for food. Last year, a very similar fish – the Atlantic menhaden – faced a management proposal for the entire Atlantic coast that also would have considered the species role in predators’ diets in setting catch limits. While the conservation measure failed, Connecticut’s representatives to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission were among the most principled voices for conservation in the room. We hope they will likewise support the conservation of herring, which play a nearly identical role in ocean ecosystems to menhaden.

The National Wildlife Federation supports these new protections for Atlantic herring. They’ll not only conserve our herring fishery for future generations – they’ll help protect all the wildlife we love that depend on herring for food, including humpback whales, striped bass, terns, puffin, porpoises and dolphins.

Zach Cockrum is director of conservation partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation’s Northeast Regional Center.

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