ALBANY, N.Y. — The days of anglers taking as many herring as they can catch from the Hudson River, something that dates back to the Colonial era, may be coming to an end.
Faced with plummeting numbers of herring in the river and elsewhere along the Atlantic seaboard, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing a first-ever limit on how many of the popular baitfish can be caught.
Under the proposals, anglers would be able to land no more than 10 herring a day between March 15 and June 15, when hundreds of thousands of the small fish come from the Atlantic up the river as far north as the Troy Dam to spawn. Anglers commonly catch herring to use as bait for striped bass, a popular sport fish that also comes up the river in the spring and feeds on herring.
“It’s about time,” said Chris Van Deusen of CJ Outdoors in Scotia, which runs charter fishing trips for stripers on the Hudson. He said some anglers routinely catch dozens of herring, and dump out dead fish from their bait wells at the end of the day.
“As someone who has been fishing the Hudson since 1981, and who has witnessed this slaughter of herring, I can tell you there has definitely been a reduction in their numbers,” he said. “This is a wake-up call to the striper fishermen. We have to change our slovenly ways. If they were to ever ban fishing for herring completely, it could end most recreational fishing on the river.”
DEC is acting to protect herring under orders from the federal Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which in 2009 ordered 15 Atlantic states to come up with plans to reverse the rapid decline of herring.
Recent studies found that blueback herring, one of the two herring types in the Hudson, are at about 1 percent of levels found in 1950, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
New York, along with Maine, New Hampshire, North and South Carolina all proposed catch limits, said Kate Taylor, fisheries management plan coordinator for the commission. Herring fishing is banned completely in the other 10 states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, which voluntarily ended herring fishing before the 2009 federal order.
DEC will take public comment on the restrictions through July 16. If enacted, rules would start for the spring 2013 fishing season and continue for five years.
Over the past two decades, the herring that return to the Hudson to spawn have been getting smaller and younger on average, according to DEC data. The average fish, once about 11 inches, now about 9 inches; smaller fish produce fewer offspring.
After hatching in late spring, young herring remain in the river until the end of the summer before venturing into the ocean.
If the herring survive for three years or so, the fish will return to the Hudson to spawn, and the cycle repeats.
Preston Lightsey has run a charter fishing business out of Coeymans Landing for about three decades. “I have no problem at all with the DEC proposal. It seems more than fair,” he said.
The proposed limit of 50 herring per charter boat is enough to allow customers to continue fishing for stripers, Lightsey said.
Herring serve as food for a variety of fish and other aquatic life, and if their numbers collapse, it could damage the entire aquatic food chain, said John Lipscomb, who for the last decade has run a water quality inspection boat for the not-for-profit environmental group Hudson Riverkeeper.
“We applaud the DEC. By doing these restrictions now, we may be able to void the complete closure of the fishery later,” Lipscomb said.
DEC will be conducting annual fish counts of herring, said agency spokeswoman Lori Severino. If counts drop for three consecutive years, despite the catch limits, herring fishing could be banned completely until numbers have rebounded for at least three years in a row, she said.
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