A push from anglers and conservationists to get stronger protections for depleted stocks of the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic shad and river herring has been rebuffed, as mid-Atlantic fishery regulators have refused to include the species in federally prescribed plans for controlling harvests of fish caught off the East Coast.

Thousands of recreational fishermen and officials in Pennsylvania appealed to the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council this week to add the four migratory species – Atlantic and hickory shad and alewife and blueback herring – to plans they already have for managing offshore commercial fishing.  Advocates warned that oceangoing trawlers have driven already diminished populations of shad and river herring to the verge of oblivion by accidentally catching them while pursuing other fish, a process known as bycatch.

But on Wednesday, after five hours of debate spanning two days, the council voted 13 to 6, with one abstention, not to act now. The majority said the council has already taken steps to limit offshore bycatch, and there are tentative indications of an uptick, or at least a leveling off, in shad and river herring abundance in the ocean.

“You’ve got to give time for what we’re doing,” said Adam Nowalsky, a council member and charter fishing captain from New Jersey. “I’m committed to restoring these stocks. I just don’t feel the (requested action) is the way to go about doing it.”

The 21-member council regulates commercial fishing in federal waters more than three miles offshore. It is made up of fisheries regulators from seven mid-Atlantic states and from the federal government, plus 13 others appointed by the federal government with ties to recreational or commercial fishing or to marine conservation.

The vote exasperated conservationists and recreational anglers, who contend that only by invoking the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act will shad and river herring have a fighting chance of bouncing back. Under it, officials would have to draw up a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the species’ populations offshore, strictly regulating any fishing activity affecting it.

“It’s where we have legal protections on species that can guarantee conservation,” said David Sikorski, government relations chairman for Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, a saltwater anglers’ group.

There is no disagreement that shad and river herring are a fraction of their one-time abundance, facing multiple problems compounded by their migratory life cycle.

American shad spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to their native rivers to spawn. Historically, tens of millions swam up tributaries every spring, supporting fisheries hundreds of miles inland. As recently as the 1950s, they were the largest commercial fishery in the Bay. Those numbers are much diminished now, and even a decades-long shutdown of the fishery in the Chesapeake hasn’t brought them back. Maryland imposed a moratorium in 1980, Virginia in 1994.

River herring – alewives and bluebacks – likewise fueled fisheries with their annual spawning surge up Bay rivers. Once estimated in the billions on the Potomac alone, their numbers have plummeted in recent decades, to the point that a few years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considered, but rejected, adding them to the list of endangered species.

Overfishing, the construction of hydroelectric dams that blocked access to historic spawning grounds, pollution and other factors have reduced both species in recent decades to all-time lows in many rivers along the East Coast.

Some states have attempted to buck that decline by rearing and releasing millions of juvenile fish. For years, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocked the Susquehanna annually with 10 to 20 million shad fry spawned at its Van Dyke hatchery.  The number of young fish released this year was just 1.7 million, though, because the available broodstock has declined.

Utilities and states, with substantial federal help, also have poured tens of millions of dollars into building and enhancing fish passages past dams, and even in some cases removing the dams altogether. The number of shad and river herring getting past the Susquehanna’s Conowingo Dam jumped after a new fish lift was installed in 1991. But in the past 15 years, the spring runs have dwindled – by 90 percent for shad, and to practically nothing for alewives and bluebacks.

Andrew Shiels, fisheries director for the Pennsylvania commission, told other members of the mid-Atlantic council that his state is doing all it can to restore shad and herring spawning runs in the Susquehanna River, only to have the fish disappear once they migrate out to the Bay and on into the Atlantic Ocean.

“Unless aliens are coming down and sucking them out of the ocean, they’re going somewhere,” said Shiels, who noted that he’s spent 30 years working to restore shad to the Susquehanna. “So it’s frustrating that not everybody recognizes that there’s a big hole out there, that those fish are going somewhere, and there doesn’t appear to be significant will to address that.” 

Mike Luisi, the council’s chairman and a fisheries manager with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, noted that the mid-Atlantic council acted two years ago to curb offshore trawlers’ bycatch of river herring and shad. The mackerel fishing fleet, for instance, has a 181,000-pound limit.  Also, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates shared near-shore fishing resources, has restricted their catch along much of the coast.

“It’s complicated,” Luisi observed. But he said state fishery regulators had sided with industry representatives to oppose further action now because they were worried about potentially far-reaching impacts from invoking the Magnuson-Stevenson Act.

“There’s a fear,” Luisi said, that what he called the “formulaic” protections dictated by the law could lead to shutdowns of offshore fishing for mackerel, squid and butterfish, which mingle at times with shad and river herring. “And that’s a big deal,” he added.

Representatives of fishing companies along the coast attended the council meeting in New Jersey to urge the council to stay the course, insisting that their trawlers are already voluntarily avoiding catching shad and river herring as much as they can.  The fleets generally haven’t come close to their bycatch cap, though conservationists complain the caps may be too generous and there haven’t been enough federal observers on the vessels anyway to get reliable information.

Luisi said the council is fully committed to doing what it can to help shad and river herring, and is working to get more observers as a start.  And two years after the bycatch caps were imposed, Luisi said there are some early, though inconclusive, signs of an uptick in the populations. More scientific assessments should be forthcoming in the next year, he noted, on how the fish are doing.

But Eric Palkovacs, a biologist at the University of California Santa Cruz who’s been studying river herring along the East Coast, also came to the meeting to counter that recent research by him and others shows there’s been no increase in fish abundance from Long Island Sound to North Carolina, and that the stocks there are being disproportionately affected by ocean bycatch.

Conservationists argued that even though there may be gaps in information, it’s clear that both shad and river herring numbers are so far down they need more help, and urgently.

“Reducing the catch should be a goal, and it should be a goal now,” said Joseph Gordon, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts fish conservation advocacy in the mid-Atlantic. “This is not something (where) we have time to wait for perfect science.”

The council’s debate this week was prompted by a lawsuit, which forced it to revisit its decision three years ago not to invoke stricter federal protections offshore for shad and river herring. The vote Wednesday seems destined to spawn more litigation.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, won a court ruling earlier this year that the mid-Atlantic council had not properly weighed the environmental impacts of its earlier decision not to regulate shad and river herring under the Magnuson-Stevenson Act. 

Roger Fleming, the Earthjustice lawyer who helped bring that case, said he plans to ask the judge now to overrule the council’s refusal to change its position.

“There’s no question that we’re going back to court to challenge this,” Fleming said. Council members were given undisputed evidence that river herring and shad are in need of conservation and management, he said, which is all that’s required to trigger the federal law.

He noted that his clients, a group of recreational anglers, a conservation group and a charter fishing captain, have been put out far more by the catch moratoriums that have been imposed inshore to protect the fish than have offshore commercial fishing companies.

Fleming acknowledged that oceangoing trawlers might be forced to change how, when or where they fish.

“But that’s the point,” he said. “You design measures that don’t allow them to fish at the same rate that they’re killing (shad and herring) now.”

(The federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was misidentified in the original post. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)