River herring and shad play an important role in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems. They are prey for birds, marine mammals, and other fish in the rivers where they spawn and during their long migrations to the sea.
Additionally, these species once supported commercial and recreational fisheries and even sustained the Continental Army during the American Revolution, leading to their nickname of America's "founding fish."
Unfortunately, populations of shad and river herring have declined to historic lows, threatening coastal environments, economies, and traditions dating back more than 200 years, according to CBF Fisheries Director, Bill Goldsborough.
Because shad and herring are critical to the Bay and its rivers and streams, Chesapeake states are doing all they can to bring them back, prohibiting harvesting and investing in fish passageways and water quality improvements. Programs to spawn shad in hatcheries for restocking in the tributaries have been active for decades.
Still, it has not been enough, Goldsborough said. ”Millions of shad and river herring continue to be killed by industrial fishing vessels targeting mackerel in federal waters of the Atlantic. They need protection through strong federal regulation,” Goldsborough said.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is appealing for help from the the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which manages the federal waters of the Atlantic Ocean between three miles and 200 miles offshore. The problem is that fleets of trawlers drag nets the size of football fields in these waters to catch Atlantic mackerel, but accidentally also catch and kill American shad and river herring.
CBF wants the council to protect shad and river herring through federal management and conservation measures. The protective measures should include increased monitoring and reporting of these accidental catches, as well as establishment of science-based limits on the amount of fish that can be caught at sea.
The creation of caps on accidental "bycatch" of shad and herring ("bycatch" means non-targeted species) would force the fishing fleets to avoid certain parts of the ocean at certain parts of the year, or risk exceeding the limits -- and facing a temporary ban.
The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council is scheduled to meet October 7 and 8 in Philadelphia to discuss the issue.
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By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo of shad from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)