The health of the Atlantic herring – a little forage fish that lives in massive schools that can number in the billions – is critical to the future of the New England fishing industry, and new steps need to be taken to ensure the strength of the fishery, regulators said.

So federal regulators are working on a plan to change the rules they use to set catch limits that make sure Atlantic herring aren’t overfished. Herring are important because they are sold as food and used as bait, and they play a vital role in the food web of the Atlantic Ocean, where they serve as food for marine species ranging from cod to whales, regulators said.

The New England Fisheries Management Council is working on an amendment to the existing rules that is designed to make sure future catch limits are based on “scientific uncertainty” and the status of the herring stock, according to federal documents. The document is up for public comment now and could be approved sometime in the latter half of this year, said Lori Steele, a fishery analyst for the council.

The new rules will reflect that other industries are reliant on herring, Steele said. For example, lobster fishermen use herring as bait, and whale watch tours need an abundant supply of the fish to keep whales well fed.

“One of the unique aspects of the fishery is you get a lot of indirect reliance on this fishery from other interests,” Steele said. “You’ve got the tuna fishery, groundfish fishermen, birders, ecotourism.”

Steve Weiner, an Ogunquit tuna fisherman, favors a more aggressive approach to managing herring because of the fish’s impacts on other industries.

“The healthier the herring, the more tuna,” Weiner said. “The council needs to take control of the management of this research.”

Maine and Massachusetts had by far the largest commercial Atlantic herring fisheries in the country in 2013, according to federal statistics. Fishermen in the two states combined to catch more than 170 million pounds of the fish, valued at more than $25 million.

The New England Fishery Management Council is holding a public meeting about its proposal on Thursday in Danvers, Massachusetts, and is accepting comments about it until April 30.

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