The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has recently published a proposed rule in the wrong direction for the management of forage fish. This proposal threatens the entire clupeid family (herring, alewife, blueback, shad, menhaden), all essential forage for species in greater demand – cod, haddock, halibut, swordfish, etc.

I’ve seined herring off Seabrook and dipped alewives over the Quantabacook dam near the head of the St. George River.

I’ve also run the numerical data on alewives caught by inshore and offshore gear from 1887 through 1977, and attended enough meetings of the New England Fishery Management Council to realize that it verges on being a rubber stamp for corporate interests profiting from private harvests of our public resources.

In my opinion, based on years of work on the water and in archives, it would be the height of folly to increase allowable bycatch of any clupeid species. These fish pool together offshore in what some call “hot spots,” with shad, sea herring, alewives and bluebacks in an indiscriminate schooling.

Fishermen’s own data shows that, between 1950 and 1970, Massachusetts’ seiner fleet fishing on those hotspots virtually destroyed major spawning segments of alewives that once ran up Massachusetts rivers by the tens of millions. Over that same period, Maine fishermen fished on alewives only inshore and Maine’s alewife population clearly remained within stable boundaries.

Although the regulations propose a slight decrease in Atlantic herring catch, they also propose allowing more river herring and shad to be caught as bycatch.

Bycatch cannot be separated from target species once netted, and all are generally dead when nets are emptied on deck. The Gulf of Maine today contains only about 2 percent of the vertebrate biomass it held when my grandparents were born in the 1870s and 1880s. At current rates of “management,” it will contain only jellyfish and mollusks by midcentury.

William Leavenworth


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