Quota For Herring Expected To Drop In 2019

Regulatory changes affecting the quota for Atlantic herring will impact the availability and price of herring bait. Photo courtesy of Maine Public.

Nothing chills the hearts of lobstermen more than the prospect of a bait shortage. Herring comprise the majority of bait purchased by Maine’s approximately 4,500 licensed lobstermen and even the whisper of a possible shortage causes lobstermen to mutter grimly over the marine radio.
That whisper might become more of a roar later this summer when the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) concludes two herring-related activities: release of a new benchmark stock assessment for Atlantic herring in August and a final vote on changes to Amendment 8 of the herring fishery management plan in September.
Proposed changes through Amendment 8 have been underway for several years. The amendment’s purpose is to establish a long-term acceptable biological catch (ABC) control rule that explicitly accounts for herring’s role in the ecosystem and for the biological and ecological requirements of the herring stock. Translated, that means that the Council will set a figure for how much herring can be caught by fishermen each year that will sustain the herring stock and leave an adequate amount in the sea for other predators over the next 150 years.
The amendment will also address localized depletion of herring stocks and user conflicts. Localized depletion is a bureaucratic term for a pulse of herring boats focusing on schools of herring. Under this amendment, it has come to refer to where the midwater trawlers fish for herring. Removing large volumes of herring from a relatively small area can break up herring schools and result in other species, such as whales, seabirds and predatory fish, moving away. Many have argued that this harms businesses that operate only in coastal waters, such as smaller fishing boats and recreational charter vessels.
“The goal is to account for the role of Atlantic herring in the ecosystem, specifically its role as a forage species, to stabilize the fishery at a level for optimum yield and to try to figure out a way to set catch limits keeping these goals in mind,” said Deirdre Boelke, the herring coordinator for the NEFMC. “Additionally, concerns came up about localized depletion near shore.”
At the six hearings held in the last two months, participants listened to the pros and cons of ten ABC options and nine methods to tackle localized depletion. Other than remaining at status quo, the ABC control rule options all favor an annual catch limit that leaves a larger portion of herring in the ocean to serve as prey for other species.
The options to reduce localized depletion of herring favor pushing herring trawlers further offshore. Current regulations prohibit trawlers from the Gulf of Maine from June1 to September 30, which has sent those trawlers south into the waters off Cape Cod. The amendment’s options propose requiring trawlers to operate 12 miles off Cape Cod, 25 miles or 50 miles; partial seasonal closures; or limited closures or boundary shifts.
To complicate matters, a new benchmark herring stock assessment is nearing completion. The preliminary assessment came out in early June and underwent peer review during the last week of June. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) computer model drew upon data that show four of the six lowest estimates of herring recruitment occurred in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Fewer young herring are entering the stock; the population now contains more age 6 fish than age 1 and age 2 fish combined. Based on these data, the model indicates a need to reduce the herring quota from an Annual Catch Limit of more than 100,000 metric tons to less than 30,000 metric tons. The assessment will be finalized upon acceptance by the Science and Statistical Committee in September.
In response to the preliminary results of the herring stock assessment, the NEFMC voted at its June 12 meeting to ask NOAA’s Regional Administrator to cap 2018 herring catches in Areas 1A, 1B, and 3 at 2017 levels in order to minimize anticipated quota cuts for 2019. The adjusted 2018 Acceptable Catch Limit of roughly 50,000 metric tons will then roll over on January 1, 2019, as a placeholder until the next herring specification package is completed.
As the herring stock assessment is finalized over the summer, the Council will review comments on Amendment 8 and develop recommendations for the full Council to consider in September. The full implications of the stock assessment and management implications of Amendment 8 will not be fully understood until then.