New limits are taking effect on how many Atlantic herring can be caught by New England fishermen. Federal regulators say reducing the quota by millions of pounds is necessary due to low numbers of younger fish.

Herring fishermen entered this year with a catch limit around 240 million pounds, but the regulatory New England Fishery Management Council recommended earlier this year that the number be cut back to about 118 million pounds.

NOAA announced on Wednesday that it is instead cutting the herring limit back to a little less than 110 million pounds, effective immediately.

“We did this action because we completed an assessment of the herring stock in June and it showed that lower catch limits would be needed in the next few years to reduce the chance of overfishing,” said Carrie Nordeen, a fishery policy analyst with NOAA Fisheries.

Herring are harvested for use as bait for lobster traps and other species, as well as food, fish oil and other products. The herring catch has been declining since 2013 and this year's catch also appears lower than previous years.

Herring are eaten by many larger fish, as well as whales and puffins.

“Herring’s role in the ecosystem is really critical and making sure that the herring stock doesn't go into full crash is critical," said Peter Baker, who directs marine conservation in New England waters for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s that level in the food chain where you go from these little tiny organisms up to something they can actually feed say a giant tuna that weighs 1500 pounds or a 50-pound striped bass or a whale.”

Baker blames low herring numbers in part on what he calls “industrial fishing” of the species. “We've really allowed too-big of ships with too much fishing power to have too much opportunity and catch too much herring especially close to shore.”

Gerry O'Neill, the president of Cape Seafoods in Gloucester manages two mid-water trawlers that fish for herring. He disputes that claim. “There is no such thing as industrial trawlers on this coast,” O’Neill said. “Nobody's catching thousands and thousands of tons and freezing it at sea. It's a misrepresentation of what that gear type is doing.”

O’Neill points to NOAA’s explanation that the limits are the result of low “recruitment” in the fishery – meaning there aren’t enough small, young herring. “We can't control the environmental factors that determine whether there's a high recruitment or low recruitment,” he said. “It really has nothing to do with fishing, whatsoever.”

O’Neill said he is concerned about the accuracy of the government’s stock assessments. “I always hope that they're using the best possible science they can to get that data,” he said. “Are the surveys as accurate as we'd like them to be? I have my doubts. But I'd like to think they are.”

O’Neill said the new limits will be hard for fishermen like him. But he acknowledges that the quota is necessary. “It's a big hit,” he said. “I mean we have to try and figure out a way through it, but it was something that had to happen.”

And he's hopeful that the reductions this year can help prevent far more drastic limits next year. “I’m not going to say I'm optimistic because in this business, you're always waiting for the next shoe to drop, for somebody to pull an area away from you or move m percentages of fish from one place to another and restrict your access,” he said. “So ‘optimistic’ is not a word I would use. I mean I'm hopeful that that fairness remains in the fishery that that everybody gets, you know, a percentage that that's fair.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.