Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) are oceanic, plankton-feeding fish that occur in large schools and inhabit coastal and continental shelf waters from Labrador to Virginia. Juveniles (called sardines) undergo seasonal inshore-offshore migrations. Sardines are abundant in shallow, inshore waters during the warmer months of the year. Adults (age three and older) migrate south from summer/fall spawning grounds in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank to spend the winter in Southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Herring spawn as early as August in Nova Scotia and eastern Maine and during October and November in the southern Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Nantucket Shoals. Spawning habitat consists of rock, gravel, or sand bottoms, ranging in depth from 50-150 feet. Females can produce between 30,000 and 200,000 eggs each. Schools can produce so many eggs that the ocean bottom is covered in a dense carpet of eggs several centimeters thick. Eggs hatch in 10-12 days depending on water temperature. By their fourth year, fish are about 10” in length and may eventually grow to about 15” (1 ½ pounds) by 15 to 18 years old. Herring are filter feeders preying entirely on plankton. They usually feed at night following the massive vertical migrations of zooplankton that inhabit deep waters by day and surface waters by night.
Atlantic herring are one of the most important species in the Northeast because of the vast role they play in the marine ecosystem and their importance to fishermen. Herring form the base of the food web as a forage fish for marine mammals, seabirds and many fish throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Schooling herring serve as an important prey resource for migrating whale and dolphin populations, which eco-tourism activities such as whale watching, are dependent on. Atlantic herring also provide effective and affordable bait to lobster, blue crab and tuna fishermen and are sold as canned sardines, steaks and kippers. They are also a valued commodity overseas where they are frozen and salted. Since 2000, the ex-vessel value of commercial herring landings has averaged about $27 million/year.
The commercial herring fishery in New England developed in the late 19th century, spurred by the development of the canning industry. The lobster fishery developed about the same time, creating a market for herring as bait. Commercially landed herring are caught using purse seines and mid-water trawls. Landings averaged 59,860 mt (132 million pounds) throughout the late 1890s and early 1900s, and again in the late 1940s and 1950s. An aggressive foreign fishery developed on Georges Bank in the early 1960s, with landings peaking at 477,760 mt (1 billion pounds) in 1968. This excessive harvest led to a collapse of the offshore herring stock. Today, the stock is rebuilt with the average annual catch since 2008 just below 90,736 mt (200 million pounds). The majority of these landings are taken from the Gulf of Maine, but fisheries also occur on Georges Bank and areas south and west of Cape Cod.
The latest stock assessment update, conducted by the Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop in 2015, indicates Atlantic herring are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Spawning stock biomass in 2014 is estimated at 623,000 mt, well above the SSB threshold and target of 155,573 mt (342 million pounds) and 311,145 mt (685 million pounds), respectively. Current fishing mortality is estimated at 0.16, below the fishing mortality threshold of 0.24.
The Commission manages Atlantic herring through Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which was approved in February 2016 and implemented on June 1, 2016. The Amendment refines the spawning closure system and modified the fixed gear set-aside. It also consolidates prior amendments and addenda along with recent management decisions into a single document; it is now the comprehensive document for Atlantic herring management in state waters. Since herring can be found in state and federal waters, there are complementary management plans between the Commission and the New England Fishery Management Council (Council) which allow for the setting of annual quotas, called annual catch limits (ACLs), for three management areas and two sub-areas. The ACLs for these three areas are set based on maximum sustainable yield, which allows for a sustainable harvest but leaves enough herring for fish, birds and marine mammals. There are a few differences between the state and federal plans. The Council prohibits mid-water trawling from June 1 - September 30 in Area 1A (inshore Gulf of Maine). The Commission plan includes spawning closures and a days out provision. During a spawning closure or day out of the fishery, vessels participating in the fisheries may possess no more than 2,000 pounds of Atlantic herring per trip. In addition, all vessels traveling through Area 1A must have all gear stowed.
Amendment 3 continues to complement the Council's Framework Adjustment 2 to the Federal FMP by establishing seasonal splits in the four management areas, a rollover of up to 10% unused quota to the year after final landings data bare made available, harvest control measures in the form of triggers, and a specification process to set the triggers.
For the 2016-2018 fishing seasons, the Council and the Commission set the ACL at 231 million pounds (104,800 metric tons), a 2.6% decrease from the 2013-2015 fishing limits. For all three years, the ACL is further subdivided by the Atlantic herring management areas as follows: Area 1A = 66.79 million pounds, Area 1B = 9.9 million pounds, Area 2 = 64.1 million pounds, and Area 3 = 90.16 million pounds. The Area 1A sub-ACL is distributed seasonally with 72.8 % available from June 1 - September 30 and 27.2% available from October 1 - December 31. Underages from June through September may be rolled into the October through December period. Directed fisheries with a management area close when 92% o of the sub-ACL has been harvested, and the stock-wide fishery closes when 95% of the ACL is projected to be reached.
Concerns raised by the Commission and stakeholders regarding river herring (alewife and blueback herring) bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery prompted the NEFMC to include catch/bycatch monitoring requirements and measures to reduce interactions with river herring stocks in Amendment 5 to the federal FMP. To address the measures not approved in Amendment 5, NEFMC selected catch cap options for the Atlantic herring fishery (Framework Adjustment 3) and addressed measures such as slippage and dealer weighing provisions through Framework Adjustment 4. Additionally, Amendment 5 establishes standards of precision for bycatch estimation for all Northeast region fisheries.
The Section approved Addendum I to Amendment 3 in August 2017. The Addendum includes management measures (such as days out, weekly landing limits and at-sea carrier and transfer restrictions) to stabilize the rate of catch in Area 1A and distribute the seasonal quota throughout Trimester 2 (June through September, which has 72.8% of the annual allocation.
Days out is the primary effort control measure for the Area 1A fishery. States involved in the Atlantic herring fishery are allowed to extend the fishery by controlling fishing effort (fishing days) through landing restrictions. The goal is to provide a consistent supply of herring to the market by controlling landings, participially early in the season when herring may be localized in Area 1A.
Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts continue to modify days out of the fishery during the season to prolong the fishery in Area 1A. making herring available during peak demand. The current status of days out of the fishery is below.
Atlantic herring captured as part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's (NEFSC) Pelagic Trawl Survey. Photo credit: NEFSC.
The three inshore Atlantic herring spawning areas of eastern Maine, western Maine, and Massachusetts-New Hampshire have independent closures during the fall that may begin on the default dates of August 28, October 4 and October 4, respectively. Actual closure effective dates are determined using a GSI30-based forecast system. This method was developed by the Technical Committee, then tested and evaluated for effectiveness during the 2016 fishing season. The GSI-based spawning monitoring system tracks reproductive maturity to align the timing of spawning area closures with the onset of spawning. The modeling efforts to forecast the spawning closures are available at http://www.massmarinefisheries.net/herring/.