Our View: Why Care About Herring?

In the old days, people ate herring. They’re impossibly bony and oily, but they helped make human existence possible on Cape Cod since the beginning of time. The Wampanoags and the European settlers who followed relied on them as a food source during long winters, and as a means of fertilizing crops in the springtime. But what have herring done for us lately?

Plenty, it turns out.

Atlantic herring and their close cousins, river herring (the ones we see in herring runs each spring) are an essential part of the marine food web and are consumed by everything from birds to whales, and of course, other fish. Commercially important groundfish species like cod, haddock and flounder rely on them as forage food.

Federal regulators say that Atlantic herring have robust stock levels and are not subject to overfishing, based on a 2015 stock assessment. But they’re still targeted by highly efficient commercial fishing operations that can make a major dent in localized herring populations, which are already highly variable by nature.

Based in ports like New Bedford, Gloucester and Portland, large trawlers that scoop up herring (and many other species) from the middle of the water column are famously capable of harvesting an entire school of herring at one time.

On Tuesday, June 19, the New England Fishery Management Council is making a very rare visit to Chatham to hold a public hearing on proposed herring regulations. It’s important that Cape Codders make their voices heard when it comes to protecting near-shore stocks of these critical fish. The hearing starts at 6 p.m. at the community center, and you don’t have to be a commercial fisherman to come and speak your piece.

We agree with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which recommends prohibiting mid-water trawling in a generous buffer zone east of Cape Cod. We also agree on the need for regulators to consider the role of Atlantic herring as forage fish and to consider that role when deciding acceptable commercial catch limits.

Creating a refuge for spawning herring off Cape Cod will do more than just help ensure the sustainability of the species. It could help create an environment that’s more favorable for the small-scale, sustainable commercial fishing operations that have been part of life on Cape Cod for centuries.