In early August, NRDC submitted a petition to list both blueback herring and alewife as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Together these fish are called “river herring.” Yesterday, NOAA announced that our petition made the case that a listing may be warranted. The agency will now take the next 12 months to conduct a full scientific review of these ecologically-important fish and decide whether to take action. If they ultimately agree with us—if they agree that river herring are in dire straits—then they will propose an ESA listing for public comment.
With large dark eyes and a black shoulder spot behind the gills, these silver fish cut through the water like hatchets. But river herring aren’t just flashy. As a key link in the Atlantic’s coastal food web, they’re ecologically and economically indispensable. They support innumerable predator species, eat clouds of algae, and enrich rivers with their bodies, like they once fertilized the crops of Native Americans and colonists.
During a strong springtime “run” back then, a river or brook might at times have seemed more herring than water. But since the mid-20th century, catch of Atlantic river herring has plummeted by more than 98 percent. In waterways where millions once swam in jaw-dropping mass—jumping up and over waterfalls in a relentless drive to reach their natal spawning grounds—now only thousands return. Or just hundreds. Today river herring confront far more than waterfalls: fish trawlers, dams, dredging, pollution, and, of course, global warming.
If river herring aren’t officially protected, these hurdles might prove insurmountable. So, while NOAA’s finding is a preliminary step, it’s definitely in the right direction. It is now important for everyone who cares about the future of these important species to weigh in with the agency, which is accepting comment on the possible listing. You may submit comments until January 2, 2012, identified by the RIN 0648–XA739, here. You may also submit comments by mail to the following address: Assistant Regional Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Regional Office, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930. Please stay tuned for NOAA’s decision down the line, and for other ways you might be able to help river herring and our oceans.