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River herring are an anadromous (meaning that they migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn), highly migratory, pelagic, schooling species, with seasonal spawning migrations that vary with latitude. River herring can be found along the Atlantic coast of North America, from the maritime provinces of Canada to Florida. The coastal ranges of the two species overlap, with blueback herring found in a greater and more southerly distribution ranging from Nova Scotia down to the St. John’s River, Florida; and alewife found in a more northerly distribution, ranging from Labrador and Newfoundland to as far south as South Carolina, though less common the extreme southern range. Recent genetic studies indicate that hybridization may be occurring in some instances among alewife and blueback herring where populations overlap. Landlocked populations of alewives and blueback herring also exist, but this conservation effort for river herring pertains to the coastal anadromous forms. If there are any interactions or relevant effects from landlocked populations on the anadromous forms, they will be considered.

Historical Perspective

River herring have long represented an important fishery in North America because they were a highly abundant species that could easily be obtained by weirs, traps, and nets. River herring were used both as fertilizer for crops and as food, as they could easily be preserved by smoking, drying, or brining for later consumption. The historic commercial and recreational fishery for river herring likely contributed to the historical decline in abundance of both blueback and alewife populations. Commercial landings peaked in the late 1960s at nearly 140 million pounds, and has been less than 4 million pounds since 2000. Since the 1970s, regulations have been enacted on the directed harvest of river herring in an attempt to halt or reverse their decline.For example, since 2005, many states placed a moratorium on river herring fisheries, meaning that no catch was allowed.

Dams and other human-made barriers have also contributed to historic and current declines in abundance of both blueback and alewife populations. While estimates of habitat loss over the entire range of river herring are not available, estimates from studies in Maine show that less than 5% of lake spawning habitat and 20% of river habitat remains accessible for river herring. Water quality (including land use change, water withdrawals and discharge) and channelization and dredging have also likely contributed to overall declines in abundance for both species.

Dressing and brine salting alewife in Albermarle Sound, North Carolina.  Credit: Gulf of Maine Cod Project, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries; Courtesy of National Archives.

Current Initiatives and Partnerships

In August 2013, after conducting a review of the status of river herring throughout their range, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that listing alewife or blueback herring under the Endangered Species Act was not warranted.  This decision was made after reviewing the the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) 2012 river herring stock assessment, the peer reviewed reports from the  2012 NMFS Stock Structure, Extinction Risk, and Climate Change Workshops, the population modeling results from Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)(2013), and other available scientific and commercial information. Several significant research gaps (e.g., marine migration patterns and the effects of climate change on both species) and uncertainty associated with some datasets were identified as important issues. NMFS committed to working with ASMFC and others to further river herring issues.

NMFS and ASMFC committed to work collaboratively with our partners to implement a coordinated coastwide effort to proactively conserve river herring and address data gaps. The Technical Expert Working Group (TEWG ), composed of individuals with expertise related to river herring, threats to their survival, and/or methods for assessing human and non-human impacts to river herring populations, was developed for river herring throughout both species’ range from Canada to Florida, to provide information for use in the development of this conservation plan. A goal of the initiative is to include input from technical experts  from the following: Federal government agencies (NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, etc.), East Coast Native American Tribes and First Nations, ASMFC, the Fishery Management Councils, state fish/wildlife agencies, environmental/conservation groups, scientific/academic representatives, industry (e.g., hydroelectric and fishing), and recreational interests.  

Internal and external partnerships to NMFS and ASMFC are critical.  NMFS’s Greater Atlantic Region (e.g., Sustainable Fisheries, Habitat Restoration and Conservation, Protected Resources, and Operations and Budget Divisions),  Northeast Fisheries Science Center (e.g., Populations Dynamic Branch, Oceanography Branch and Northeast Cooperative Research Program), Southeast Regional Office (Protected Resources and Habitat Conservation Divisions), and Office of Protected Resources work together to protect and restore river herring and their habitat. NMFS and ASMFC also coordinate with and build upon the many previous and ongoing efforts to further river herring conservation, including fisheries work by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), habitat restoration by the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership and The Nature Conservancy, and conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is also ongoing coordination with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other Canadian partners.