River herring (alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus and blueback herring, A. aestivalis) stocks are in serious danger of total collapse.  Too many of these anadromous fish are caught as bycatch in other ocean fisheries and there are too many obstacles thwarting their attempts to migrate upstream to spawn.  River herring landings from directed commercial fisheries have declined 90% in the last two decades; this corresponds with an expansion of offshore fishing for Atlantic herring and Atlantic mackerel.  At the same time, a very significant percentage of mid-Atlantic streams present river herring with obstacles to their spawning.

To halt the decline and begin rebuilding healthy river herring populations, aggressive and immediate management actions are necessary. A failure to act swiftly to control all sources of river herring mortality could result in another Atlantic species becoming commercially extinct.  The purpose of the River Herring Rescue program is to tackle one significant aspect of the problem: getting herring past the obstacles they encounter on their way upstream to spawn.  Our goal is to preserve the spawning stock biomass of these species, starting with a pilot program for the 2010 spring migration and a full program in 2011 and 2012. The long term objective of this program is to raise awareness that will force change in management of ocean fisheries and remove obstacles from the river herring migration routes.

The Problems for River Herring – Too Many Caught as Bycatch and Too Many Obstacles to Spawning.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a sharp decline in river herring in rivers, streams, and at sea along the Atlantic coast.  In the late 1950s, over 70 million pounds of river herring were landed by the commercial sector.  Contrast that figure with 2005, when only 700,000 pounds of river herring were landed.  From Maine to Pennsylvania, river herring fish counts in major river systems are down between 95 to 99% compared with previous record years. Between 1985 and 2007, commercial landings of river herring decreased by 97% from 13.6 million pounds to 317,000 pounds.

A 1990 stock assessment (of both species) identified fishing pressure in Maine, Virginia, and North Carolina as a significant contributor to the decline of river herring in those states’ major rivers.  Currently, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, and North Carolina have all banned commercial and recreational river herring fishing to help conservation efforts. Additional moratoriums are scheduled for New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania in 2012.

A variety of factors have contributed to decline of stocks to date, but river herring populations are very negatively affected by other fisheries as bycatch.  River herring tend to join schools of mackerel, squid and Atlantic herring in the open sea during migration and the river herring become unintended bycatch.  Recent increased pressure from the commercial mid-water pair trawling industry has pushed the stocks to the brink of depletion.  In some cases, the Atlantic herring fishery lands twice as many river herring as bycatch than the entire in-river directed fishery on the East Coast.  It is difficult to know the full extent of the bycatch problem because observer coverage is often very low.  In some years, bycatch exceeds 2 million pounds, but given the low observer coverage, this figure is likely to be significantly higher.

Even when river herring escape being caught in the ocean, when they try to spawn in fresh water rivers, they face serious obstacles.  In New Jersey alone there are over 200 confirmed river herring spawning sites, but at the same time, less than 15% of streams in that state with dams have fish ladders. Biologists recommend that waters with pending fish ladder projects be “seeded” with river herring for several years prior to fish ladder construction and our project would facilitate this effort.


River Herring Rescue – The Project

River Herring Rescue is designed to address the short-term need to help river herring get over the obstacles they face, while working simultaneously to remove those obstacles over the medium to long term.  A short-term “lift” is needed to ensure that the existing biomass of these species is maintained until it can increase once bycatch is reduced and river obstacles removed.

A grass-roots, low cost, volunteer organizing effort will bring together individuals and people from a variety of interest groups to scoop and catch the river herring at river obstructions in early spring and “lift” them over to assist in getting them to desired spawning areas.  The Herring Lift operation will also provide an opportunity to collect badly needed baseline data for science and add to existing data.

Team leaders monitor waterways for presence of river herring. They alert teams to arrive at sites with scoop nets and buckets at most productive tides and times. We catch and release the gathered spawn river herring at the bottom of the dams and lift them up in buckets and into the waterways above the dam or impediments. This “bucket brigade” method has proven itself over recent years in many New England waters and has shown that river herring numbers increase dramatically over several years of lifting.

Media attention to the plight of the herring is essential and “lift” day is expected to appeal to many types of media outlets, especially television.  This exposure is essential to raising the profile of the problem for badly needed legislative change, habitat improvement, dam removal and or fish ladder construction and reduction in pollution.


Enforcement Issues

State fish game & wildlife bureaus and enforcement personnel will be directly involved and a system will be developed to insure that the program stays within state regulations.  It should also be noted that an element of local poaching and illegal sale of herring exists. As part of River Herring Rescue, local anglers and helpers will be advised how to participate in existing state programs that enable citizens to provide helpful information that will aid in apprehension of the poachers.  Our intention is that this additional participation in the field would encourage a self-policing environment and reduce and or eliminate the poaching.


Benefits of River Herring Rescue project

With a return of strong herring runs, entire stocks of important game fish will be healthier.  The health of many species depends directly upon a healthy marine food web, and river herring are one vital source of nourishment for other fish, marine and river mammals such as river otters and seals, and fish-eating birds like herons and egrets, amphibians, and reptiles.  Recreational fishing for striped bass alone would greatly benefit, as would local shorefront business and fishing charter operations.

In summary, River Herring Rescue intends to accomplish several key objectives:

  • Preserve the existing biomass while the other issues are resolved.
  • Raise public awareness about local waters and the failing marine food web.
  • Gather scientific data for fishery managers to decide upon conservation measures needed.
  • Raise funds for habitat protection, fish ladder projects, etc.
  • Restore and improve ecosystem and game fish health.
  • Improve recreational fishing and boost economy for related fishing businesses.
  • Build a well needed bridge between environmental organizations and recreational fishing interests.

For more information, please contact:

Capt. Paul Eidman

Email: [email protected]

Phone: (732) 614 3373