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Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus)

New England Fishery Management Council
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

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Atlantic herring is a major forage species off the northeast coast of North America, feeding valuable groundfish such as cod, hake, haddock, flounder, monkfish, and dogfish, pelagic fish species such as bluefin tuna, swordfish, and bluefish, as well as striped bass, black sea bass, Atlantic salmon, sharks and skates, and even squid. Many species of seabirds and marine mammals also rely heavily on herring as a major food source.1 The recovery of overfished groundfish and pelagic fish species may depend on the abundance and availability of herring as a food source.

Record-setting catches by the so-called �distant water� factory trawlers of Spain, the Soviet Union and other foreign countries during 1960s and 1970s led to the collapse of the New England herring stock. After the U.S. declaration of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 1976 and expulsion of the foreign fishing vessels, a domestic herring fishery continued to operate at much lower levels. The Gulf of Maine-Georges Bank herring stock complex began to recover during the late 1980s with limited fishing. The herring stock did not recover fully until the 1990s and current stock biomass (age 2+) is now believed to be comparable to the 1960s.

Since the mid-1990s, the New England herring trawl fishery has once again expanded and is now the largest fishery in the region, supplying markets for canned, frozen and salted products as well bait for commercial lobster, crab and tuna fisheries in New England.

Estimated stock biomass increased from a low of about 105,000 tons in 1982 to near 1.3 million tons in 2001, but declined to about 1.0 million tons in 2005.

Management Issues
Although the stock as a whole is not considered overfished at present and estimated fishing mortality has been relatively low compared to the peak years of the fishery in the 1960s, more attention needs to be focused on the herring stock structure and the potential vulnerability of subpopulations to localized overfishing. Herring biologists generally agree that there are three major stocks or stock "composites" of herring in the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Banks area that return to the same spawning grounds every year. Each of these stocks may in turn be composed of smaller groups that spawn on individual banks or coastal locations.

There is also growing concern about the rapid expansion of the nearshore trawl fishery in the Gulf of Maine and the impacts on foraging whales as well as high bycatch of overfished cod, haddock and other fish that are caught incidentally in the herring trawl fishery. In addition, the herring management plan does not explicitly consider the needs of predators when setting the annual quota.

According the Atlantic Herring Alliance, fishery managers need to address three critical issues in 2008:

  • Better accounting for what the industrial mid-water herring trawl fleet catches and what it catches but throws away (discards)
  • Creation of buffer zones to protect inshore coastal waters from the herring trawl fleet
  • Address the needs of predators when setting catch levels

1 New England Fishery Management Council, The Role of Atlantic Herring, Clupea Harengus, in the NW Atlantic Ecosystem, Appendix V to the Final Amendment 1 to the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan (September 2003). See

Copyright � Marine Fish Conservation Network. All Rights Reserved 2007

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