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Decline in three key fish species raises concerns

Three species of once ubiquitous little fish that support the rest of the North Atlantic marine ecosystem are being seriously overfished either deliberately or as bycatch, prompting recent calls from a variety of interest groups for fisheries regulators to take action to prevent their collapse.

"These are three of a half-dozen keystone, high-quality forage species on the Northeast shelf, and they're in trouble," Tom Rudolph, policy and research manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Forage Fish Conservation Initiative.

Atlantic menhaden, along with alewife and blueback herring - collectively called river herring - are important species in Long Island Sound and along the entire Atlantic Coast. But it is in federal waters, beyond the areas controlled by the states, that regulation is lacking of the commercial fisheries that are depleting the fishes' populations, Rudolph said.

The menhaden fishery, based mainly in Virginia, harvests and processes the small fish for Omega-3 fish oil supplements, fish meal, fertilizer and other products. River herring are mainly netted as "bycatch," by trawlers fishing for other species, and sold for bait.

Rudolph's organization is among a host of interest groups urging a multistate panel meeting in Boston next week to set stricter limits on the menhaden fishery. Others taking up the call include wildlife and recreational fishermen's organizations; 32 members of Congress including the entire Connecticut delegation; and 75 scientists including Peter Auster, marine science professor at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut.

"There's been a very high level of interest in this," said Toni Kerns, senior fishery management plan coordinator for the panel, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The commission will start discussing proposals for menhaden Monday, and a vote could be taken Wednesday, Kerns said.

The various proposals would reduce the number of menhaden that could be taken by the commercial fishery to a level that would allow the population to rebuild. It has declined from a peak of an estimated 26 billion fish in 1959, Rudolph said, to 2.45 billion fish in 2008.

Pew has also joined in support of the Natural Resources Defense Council's successful petition to have river herring considered for federal listing as an endangered species, a status that would bring new controls on the fishery and requirements for restoration programs.

Among the 42 organizations in the Herring Alliance, formed by Pew in support of the petition, were the Eightmile River Wild & Scenic Coordinating Committee, which represents the Eightmile River watershed in Salem, Lyme and East Haddam, the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut and fishermen's and wildlife groups from several states.

Menhaden are a main food for bluefin tuna, striped bass, cod, bluefish, sea birds and marine mammals, said Dave Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Simpson is one of Connecticut's representatives on the marine states commission.

River herring, which divide their lives between marine and freshwater environments, traveling into Connecticut's rivers every spring to spawn, are key parts of the diets of land and aquatic wildlife. One of the state's largest herring runs is at Bride Brook in East Lyme.

Simpson called the three species, "the grass of the sea." In Connecticut, he said, there is a small menhaden fishery for bait markets. The state once supported a larger menhaden fishery, he noted, and at one time fish oil plants were located on the Thames River in Groton, in Stonington and where Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme is now located.

No commercial or recreational fishing of river herring has been allowed for several years in Connecticut and some other East Coast states, and there have been many projects to restore populations by removing dams and building fish ladders to aid passage of herring to freshwater spawning grounds.

Rudolph said he found it ironic that an individual fisherman in Connecticut couldn't go out with a bucket and collect a few river herring to use as bait, yet offshore trawlers can legally take them by hundreds from federal waters. The Herring Alliance estimates the annual bycatch at 1.7 million pounds.

Forage fish facts

River herring:
• Range: Atlantic Canada to U.S. south Atlantic coast
• Weight: less than half pound
• Length: 14 to 16 inches
• Appearance: alewife and blueback herring similar, gray-green above and silvery below; differences in body depth and eye diameter.

Atlantic menhaden:
• Range: Nova Scotia to northern Florida
• Weight: about one pound
• Length: 15 inches
• Appearance: compressed, silvery bodies, black shoulder spot.

More information:; search word “herring”


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