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 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) at ages 15 to 18 years.
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 captured as part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's (NEFSC) Pelagic Trawl Survey. Photo credit: NEFSC.
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, conducted by the Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop in 2012, indicates Atlantic herring are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Spawning stock biomass in 2011 is estimated at 518,000 mt (1.1 billion pounds), well above the SSB threshold and target of 78,500 mt (173 million pounds) and 157,000 mt (364 million pounds), respectively. Current fishing mortality is estimated at 0.14, below the fishing mortality threshold of 0.27. The latest assessment represents a significant departure from previous assessments in that it examines predator consumption on Atlantic herring biomass and productivity to address herring ecosystem functions.
Atlantic herring are managed under Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring and its associated addenda (I-VI). Because herring can be found in state and federal waters, there are complementary management plans between the Commission and New England Fishery Management Council (Council) which set annual quotas, called annual catch limits (ACL), for three management areas and two sub-areas. The ACLs for these areas are set based on the maximum sustainable yield that allows for a sustainable harvest but leaves enough herring for fish, birds and marine mammals.
While the plans for state and federal waters share management boundaries, there are a few differences between the plans. The Council prohibits mid-water trawling from June 1 - September 30 in federal waters (3-200 miles from shore). The Commission plan includes spawning closures and a "days out" provision. Days out is the primary effort control measure for the inshore fishery, restricting vessels to 2,000 pounds of herring on a day out to prolong a management area's TAC.
Addendum VI, approved in 2013, complements the Council's Framework Adjustment 2 to the Federal FMP by establishing seasonal splitting in the four management areas, a rollover of up to 10% unused quota to the year after final landings data are made available, harvest control measures in the form of triggers, and a specification process to set the triggers.
For the 2013-2015 fishing seasons, the Commission set the ACL at 237.7 million pounds, an 18% increase from 2010-2012 limits. For all three years, the ACL is further subdivided by Atlantic herring management areas as follows: Area 1A = 68.8 million pounds, Area 1B = 10.14 million pounds, Area 2 = 66.15 million pounds, and Area 3 = 92.6 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. The fishery will close when 92% of the seasonal period’s quota has been harvested and underages from June through September may be rolled into the October through December period. Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts continue to modify days-out of the fishery during the season to prolong the fishery in Area 1A (inshore GOM), making herring available during peak demand.
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. However, NOAA Fisheries only partially implemented Amendment 5 in 2013. To address the measures not approved in Amendment 5, NEFMC selected catch cap options for the Atlantic herring fishery (Draft Framework Adjustment 3) and initiated the development of Framework Adjustment 4 in 2014 to address measures such as slippage and dealer weighing provisions.
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 15, September 1, and September 21, respectively. Actual closure effective dates are based on detection of ripe females (see Addendum V: Comprehensive Spawning Regulations for regulatory language). The current status of spawning closures are listed below: