New Jersey has shut down its river herring fishery partly because it does not have the personnel or the funding to collect the data it needs.
That means fishermen who net the herring, mostly for the bait business, can no longer do so. Recreational anglers, including fly fishermen, no longer may target them. If an angler catches a river herring by accident, it now must be thrown back.
Commercial fishermen who work offshore and land river herring as an accidental by-catch of squid, mackerel and Atlantic herring operations, also cannot sell them in New Jersey.
State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin closed the fishery in state waters Thursday, said Brandon Muffley, head of the state Bureau of Marine Fisheries.
The state had been under a deadline from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to prove the fishery was sustainable. It may be sustainable, Muffley said, but they do not have the staff to prove it.
"That's a big part of it. We don't have the data. We don't know what river herring's abundance is or what our fisheries are taking. We haven't had the resources to do the work," Muffley said.
Proponents of a saltwater fishing fee over the past several years had argued it was needed as a way to raise money for just such research, but the state decided instead to create a saltwater fishing registry with no fee.
"If a whole pile of money and if biologists fell into our laps tomorrow, it would still take some time to collect the data," Muffley said.
The lack of funds and personnel could become a factor again next year with another fish from the herring family, although Muffley said efforts are under way to come up with the data needed.
"Shad is following the same path. We need a sustainability plan by 2013, or the shad fisheries are closed," Muffley said.
River herring, which includes both blueback and alewife, historically was a significant fishery here for food, bait, fertilizer and other uses. The species that lives in the ocean and relies on freshwater rivers to spawn has been in serious decline for decades. That decline is partly due to water quality in the rivers, but also is caused by dams and other impediments to moving upstream.
New Jersey is not the only state that failed to meet the ASMFC mandate. Kate Taylor, river herring coordinator with the ASMFC, said New Jersey is joined by Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Taylor said Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts already had state bans due to stock declines.
Maine, New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina are in the process of getting approvals and were not shut down, although Taylor said only Florida and South Carolina have approved sustainability plans.
The ASMFC mandate is for state waters, but fishermen who work in federal waters outside three miles, mostly fishing for mackerel and squid, also catch river herring. The fish also school with and are caught with one of their cousins, the Atlantic herring.
Research indicates the commercial catch for river herring declined from 65 million pounds a year in the mid-1960s to just 1.2 million pounds a year in recent years.
A bigger loss is an estimated 3 million pounds a year accidentally caught in trawl nets.
Muffley said boats will be allowed to continue catching river herring from federal waters but cannot sell them in New Jersey. The state order prohibits the "take, possession and sale of river herring" from state waters, although Muffley said it does not apply to landlocked lakes where river herring are caught.
Environmental groups have been pushing for controls on river herring because it is an important forage fish in rivers and the ocean. It is eaten by striped bass, cod, whales, dolphins, haddock, seals, river otters, cormorants, herons, eagles and many other species. The Herring Alliance has been working to install fish ladders on rivers, remove dams and address offshore trawlers.
Muffley said the ultimate goal is to bring river herring back as a forage fish.
"If they come back, it will help predatory fish that feed on them, like striped bass," Muffley said.
Contact Richard Degener: