This week, WGBH News is putting a focus on the tradeoffs in our waters in our series made in partnership with WCAI: Long Haul: the Future of New England's Fishing Industry.

When it comes to commercial fishing, the little fish are just as important as the big ones. It’s the bait fish—smaller species like river herring and Atlantic herring—that support the entire commercial fishing industry. But baitfish stocks are dwindling. If these stocks don’t rebound, not only will fishermen be out of bait, they also may be out of fish.

Locals Notice Steep Decline

Buddy Vanderhoop has managed the Wampanoag River Herring Run on Matha's Vineyard between Menemsha Pond and Squibnocket Pond for more than 35 years. He's watched the river herring population dwindle.

As of nine years ago, the Wampanoag took about 40,000 pounds of river herring a week from the run each spring and let over 400,000 pounds a week swim through to Squibnocket to spawn, Vanderhoop said. These days, only about 10,000 fish total run up, and there's a statewide moratorium on catching and selling river herring. 

"River herring" is a term applied collectively to alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). River herring numbers in many runs have declined by as much as 95 percent since 2000. In 2006 they were designated a species of concern by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

River Herring Common Bycatch in Atlantic Herring Fishery

When it comes to fishing, river herring and Atlantic herring are linked. They're different species—with different lifecycles—but Atlantic herring populations are in much better shape. But during the winter, the two species mix at sea, making it almost impossible to target one species without enormous by-catch on the other. 

There's a huge industry targeting Atlantic herring. The boats are called mid-water trawlers, and they often team up and drag a net between them for a practice called pair-trawling. The latest numbers from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission show that on average from 2005 to 2010, over a million pounds of river herring were taken each year as bycatch.

Many Factors Contribute to Baitfish Struggle

Bycatch and overfishing aren’t the only reason baitfish are struggling. Dams make it hard for river herring to return to their spawning grounds and reproduce. There’s industrial pollution that causes poor water quality in rivers and estuaries. There’s climate change. And beyond all this, there’s the fact that baitfish are part of an ecosystem that isn’t managed comprehensively. 

No species stands alone, and this is particularly important when it comes to managing baitfish. Species like river herring and Atlantic herring  traditionally play many roles: they're forage for larger fish like cod and Bluefin tuna, they're food for humans, and they're bait for recreational and commercial fisheries.

Jud Crawford is a biologist and policy manager with the Pew Charitable Trust in Boston. He said every quota is a trade-off—if fishermen are taking more Atlantic herring, there will be fewer baitfish for cod and haddock and tuna to eat in the wild, and their populations will likely shrink. 

Hope for the Future

The hope is that science and policy and management can recognize this and come together to help rebuild these keystone species. There are a lot of hurdles—it’s hard to tell Atlantic herring and river herring apart on a fish finder, and some fishermen have a hard time saying which species they’ve caught with just a casual glance.

Regulators and scientists are working to get more observer coverage on big boats, and there are projects tracking river herring by-catch and trying to reduce the number of these fish tossed overboard dead.

In the meantime, herring run managers like Buddy Vanderhoop are doing their part. Every year, he watches river herring go up the stream laden with eggs. And a few weeks later he watches their spawn swim down, and hopes that one year soon there will be enough fish once again to fill his nets.