ELLSWORTH, Maine — A national environmental group is petitioning federal regulators to list alewives and blueback herring as a “threatened species” because of declining populations in other states along the Eastern Seaboard.
But even if the National Marine Fisheries Service accepted the proposal, Maine fishermen who use the two types of herring for bait may not be affected because of the species’ stronger populations in this area.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is arguing that the once-abundant alewife and blueback herring — referred to jointly as “river herring” — occupy an important spot in the food chains in both the ocean and the freshwater rivers where they spawn. A wide variety of fish species, including tuna and cod, as well as eagles, seals and other animals feed on river herring.
But river herring populations have been declining throughout their range in recent decades because of a combination of factors, most notably overfishing by ships targeting other species and dams that obstruct herring’s historic migratory routes.
“Without substantial mitigation and management of these stressors, the alewife and the blueback herring are likely to become endangered and eventually extinct throughout all or significant portions of their ranges,” reads the Natural Resources Defense Council petition.
The group proposed two options for federal regulators: either list all river herring as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act or list four specific population segments in southern New England and other mid-Atlantic states. The latter proposal would not directly affect Maine.
Patrick Keliher, acting director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the council’s proposal to list all river herring as threatened shows that the organization isn’t familiar with what is happening with the species in Maine.
In Maine, the number of alewives and blueback herring is rising in many rivers. On the Sebasticook River, for example, roughly 3 million river herring returned to spawn this year.
“As it relates to the state of Maine, we would be vehemently opposed to any listing of the species in our waters,” Keliher said. “Our runs are coming back very strong in areas where we have active management.”
Representatives for the council could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
However, Peter Baker with the Pew Environment Group said his organization and other members of the Herring Alliance support the petition. The Herring Alliance is a coalition of more than 40 groups seeking stronger protections for both river herring and Atlantic herring.
Baker said river herring populations in Maine are in better shape than in states to the south.
“The mid-Atlantic states all the way through Massachusetts are the areas where we are seeing the biggest problems,” Baker said.
A key aim of the groups is to convince the National Marine Fisheries Service to regulate the amount of river herring that boats fishing in federal waters can haul. Regulators can do that by targeting river herring in particular or by limiting the amount of river herring boats can haul in as by-catch when targeting Atlantic or sea herring, which are a popular source of bait.
Baker said his organization supports sustainable, small-scale fisheries for river herring in in-state waters and federal waters.
Adding river herring to the Endangered Species List could affect some Maine fishermen, although alewives and blueback herring are not a major source of bait.
River herring have been considered a significant food source for marine and bird species, but have not comprised a significant portion of the bait supply for Maine’s $313 million lobster industry, according to Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron.
McCarron said Tuesday that river herring make up approximately 1 percent of the industry’s annual bait supply.
According to Department of Marine Resources statistics, 1.3 million pounds of alewives worth $290,000 were harvested in Maine in 2010, while 55 million pounds of Atlantic or sea herring, with a value of $9 million, were harvested in Maine the same year.
Staff writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.