Increasingly, menhaden (“pogies”) are replacing herring as bait in the Maine lobster fishery as herring populations face declines from overfishing and warming ocean conditions. While those fishing for lobster are applauding increased catches of pogies, I want to address an important, often overlooked issue: responsible fishing and ecosystem management. While pogy fishing could possibly relieve fishing pressure on Atlantic herring populations, there is still risk of overfishing in Maine’s waters that has much broader ecological implications for marine wildlife, including a seabird important to Maine’s identity, the Atlantic puffin.

By the sheer number of fish they pull out of the ocean at once, large commercial fishing fleets known as midwater trawlers strain Atlantic herring populations. These midwater trawlers hold up to a million pounds of fish per ship and use nets the size of football fields to fish millions of herring at one time, resulting in devastating implications for herring and Atlantic puffin populations.

This practice of using large nets to quickly take many fish of reproductive age out of selected ocean locations can lower fish reproduction and decrease genetic diversity. This practice also wipes out prey for species such as seabirds, larger fish and marine mammals that look for food in the fished area. Localized prey depletions can be very detrimental if near seabird colonies or locations favored by larger fish and mammals. This past summer, Maine puffins brought few herring home to their chicks. This, combined with warmer-than-usual water around the islands, led to the starvation of many puffin chicks.

There is a way to help the herring fishery and account for the needs of predators when deciding how many fish to take from the ocean; this is “ecosystem-based fishery management.” Ecosystem-based management sets an amount of fish aside for predators that rely on these fish. This approach also provides a greater safety margin so that the harvested fish population is more resilient and less likely to experience unexpected downturns

The New England Fishery Management Council, which sets regulations for how many fish can be caught and has jurisdiction of waters off the coast of Maine, will meet Tuesday to decide whether to implement ecosystem-based fishery management of herring. It will also decide whether to set specific restrictions on midwater trawlers. With herring in steep decline, this meeting could not come at a better time.

Scientists are predicting that fishery dynamics could completely change because of increasing ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Herring and other important seabird forage fish are sensitive to ocean temperature and move to deeper and offshore water, meaning seabirds like puffins will no longer be able to forage for them.

Warming oceans are also a central reason why those fishing in Maine are catching more pogies. Just as herring are leaving the Maine coast because of warming water, Maine’s relatively cooler waters are attracting pogies from southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Commercial pogie fleets in Maine have doubled their catch since last year, and if fishing continues to increase at this rate, we will start to see declines in this fishery as well as that of Atlantic herring. Pogies are important to many of the same predators that rely on herring, including ospreys and bald eagles, whales and larger commercially and recreationally important fish species like tuna and black sea bass.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had the opportunity to implement ecosystem-based fishery management for pogies last year, but instead postponed its conservation approach, giving in to a large commercial fishing company, Omega Protein, which catches 75 percent of the coastwide pogy quota. We need to ensure that we have a more sustainable approach to fishing for forage fish, so that the rest of the marine ecosystem can thrive, instead of one large corporation.

With a changing climate and increased pressure from fishing vessels, forage fish need a well-thought-out management plan that considers the needs of the fishing community as well as marine predators and other forage fish consumers. Maine puffins can thrive if we leave them enough forage fish like herring in the sea. I call on the New England Fishery Management Council to implement a responsible solution: ecosystem-based management of herring, menhaden, and other forage fish to promote the health of Atlantic puffins and other fish-eating ocean wildlife.

 

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