Protecting the Herring

More than one hundred fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau noted the many rivers on Cape Cod named for herring. The day could come, he mused in his book Cape Cod, when people might find more Herring Rivers on the Cape than herring.

While that day has yet to come, the scarcity of herring in recent years from runs throughout Massachusetts, including on the Vineyard, has endowed Thoreau’s observation with an eerie prophecy.

Massachusetts is in the third year of a three-year moratorium on the harvest or possession of herring, also known as alewives. Yet the moratorium apparently has done little if anything to restore the health of the fishery.

Herring play a key role in the oceanic food chain, serving as forage fish for other species. Fishermen value the alewives as bait.

Vineyard fishermen such as Capt. William (Buddy) Vanderhoop Jr., who testified last week before the New England Fisheries Management Council, rightly suspect that the problem lies not at the herring runs themselves, but in offshore waters where the herring are being swept up in droves by large offshore factory trawlers.

In remarks to the council which are published on today’s Commentary Page, Mr. Vanderhoop told the council, “During the height of our herring season in past years, in May we would see over sixty thousand fish per morning. Now we are lucky to observe five or six thousand in early light.”

He called on the council, which governs federal waters, to better regulate the factory trawlers by placing observers on the vessels, fining or suspending the permits of trawlers with a herring bycatch exceeding one per cent and banning herring landings during their spawning season from April through June.

The council would be wise to heed his call.

Mr. Vanderhoop also faults the state’s moratorium, saying it penalizes small fishermen such as himself while ignoring the root cause of the decline.

While Mr. Vanderhoop may be right, the state nevertheless should extend the moratorium, which is a prudent measure aimed at protecting the handful of alewives that somehow still survive to climb the runs on the Vineyard and along the coast. There is too much at risk; if herring are driven into extinction it would be a grievous blow to the food chain and a tragedy of monumental proportions.