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. Many eco-tourism activities, such as whale watching, are dependent on a steady supply of herring because whales migrate inshore following schooling herring. Atlantic herring 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 $15 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 477760 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.
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. 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 a total allowable catch (TAC), for three management areas and two sub-areas. The TACs 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. 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.
Recent concerns raised by the Commission and stakeholders regarding river herring (alewife and blueback herring) bycatch in the Atlantic herring fishery prompted the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) to include catch/bycatch monitoring requirements and measures to reduce interactions with river herring stocks in Draft Amendment 5 to the Atlantic Herring FMP. The proposed measures include monitoring requirements, avoidance and protection areas, trigger based approaches, and catch caps. Amendment 5's Draft Environmental Impact Statement was formally submitted to NOAA Fisheries Service in November 2011. Public hearings were held in spring 2012, with final implementation slated for 2013.