NRDC, Partners Sue to Protect River Herring

WASHINGTON – NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) and a coalition of fishing and watershed protection groups filed a lawsuit today in federal court to protect river herring from extinction.

The complaint alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act when it declined, last year, to list alewife and blueback herring—collectively referred to as river herring—as threatened species. A court previously found that the agency’s 2013 decision to not list the species was arbitrary.

“River herring are facing warming waters, extreme flooding events, and other threats that NMFS has chosen to minimize,” said Sam Eisenberg, attorney for NRDC. “The agency is ignoring the science by speculating that river herring will quickly ‘recolonize’ rivers after their populations are wiped out, and ignoring the threat climate change poses beyond 15 years. Its policy for these vulnerable species is essentially ‘cross your fingers.’”

Alewife and blueback herring may be small, but they are a critical part of the coastal riverine and ocean food chains. River herring were once abundant up and down the eastern seaboard, with spawning runs in larger rivers numbering into the millions of fish each year. Their populations collapsed in the 1970s and have never recovered—they are now a mere 3% of historical levels, according to estimates.

“Federal agencies have failed for decades to give these keystone species the protection they need to recover,” said Roger Fleming, attorney for Anglers Conservation Network, Great Egg Harbor River Council, and Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association. “That failure compounds the threats that river herring face from industrial fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution. The science is clear that they merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Listing river herring is the best chance to ensure their survival and recovery.”


NRDC petitioned NMFS in 2011 to list the two species as threatened. The petition described the perilous state of the fishery and the threats river herring face from overfishing, dams and turbines, and climate change. NMFS declined to list the species in 2013, and NRDC and partners sued, alleging that the decision regarding blueback herring was arbitrary and capricious.

In 2017, a federal court in Washington, DC agreed, vacating NMFS’s decision, and holding that the agency had committed significant errors.  It cited, for example, flaws in the agency’s statistical analysis of blueback herring population trends.

Last June, NMFS issued a revised listing determination, again declining to protect either species.

In today’s lawsuit, the conservation groups allege that NMFS unlawfully cut short its consideration of climate change by selecting a “foreseeable future” period extending only to the year 2036. Moreover, the groups claim, NMFS relied on a theory that lacks scientific support when it concluded that fish from neighboring regions will rapidly “recolonize” those regions if river herring in the rivers there are extirpated.

“NMFS’s claim that blueback herring will simply reappear in rivers stretching over 1,000 miles of coastline in Massachusetts and Rhode Island is magical thinking,” said Eisenberg. “And its confident predictions about how this ‘recolonization’ will play out over the next 60 years is at odds with its own failure to consider the effects of long-term ocean warming.”

“We’ve seen widespread drastic declines in all of our historic river herring runs here in New Jersey. In the spring, migrating Striped Bass used to follow these fish and feed on them prior to spawning. Nowadays they are left to scrounge for other forage at a time when they need them most,” said Capt. Paul Eidman, Founder of Anglers Conservation Network.

“The historical abundance of river herring in the Great Egg Harbor River system is long gone. New Jersey has outlawed the possession of a single river herring by one of our members, but the federal government allows them to be killed by the thousands as bycatch in federal waters.  It’s time for the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the blueback herring as a threatened species and start to take seriously the work needed to bring them back,” said Fred Akers, Administrator of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association.

NRDC filed the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C. on behalf of itself, Anglers Conservation Network, Great Egg Harbor River Council, and Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association.

The complaint is available here.


NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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