River herring are socially, economically and ecologically important anadromous fish that live along the Atlantic coast of North America. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater rivers and lakes along the coast and migrate to sea where they mature into adults and return to freshwater to spawn.
Since colonial days, fishermen have made a living catching river herring. But river herring populations have declined ever since, with drastic declines of more than 95 percent since the mid-1980s. In 2012, The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission listed river herring as depleted throughout its range. Major threats to river herring include freshwater commercial and recreational fishing, bycatch mortality in open ocean fisheries that target other fish and barriers to upstream migration.
In 2009, NFWF launched a 10-year River Herring Program that focuses on implementing four strategies needed to reverse declines and create sustainable populations. Its goal is to increase river herring run counts in specific rivers along the eastern U.S. by 300 percent from 2008 levels.
Given the broad geographic distribution of the two species of river herring, and the fact that their life history crosses many habitats and jurisdictions, the success of this conservation program will rely on a number of partners. These include federal, state, and local government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions.
Funding priorities for this program include:
- Habitat restoration: Restore access to, and better manage, key spawning and nursery habitats by removing or modifying fish passage barriers in priority habitats;
- Habitat management: Promote sustainable river herring fisheries in key rivers, which will involve determining appropriate harvest rates and developing sustainability plans;
- Incentives to reduce bycatch: Reduce river herring bycatch mortality in ocean fisheries by implementing incentives for fishing fleets to avoid river herring hotspots; and
- Research, monitoring, and evaluation: Implement stock assessments, determine ocean bycatch rates, conduct genetic analysis, and identify high priority watersheds and fish passage barriers.
Since 2009, the River Herring Program has invested more than $4.7 million in 35 projects. These projects have:
- Completed a survey of river herring bycatch in ocean fisheries;
- Developed management alternatives to reduce river herring bycatch in ocean fisheries;
- Improved state management of over 39,000 acres of spawning habitat in Maine;
- Rebuilt a crumbling fish ladder, restoring access to a 5,000+ acre spawning lake;
- Completed a coastwide watershed and dam prioritization;
- Performed genetic analysis on over 1,000 river herring in rivers from Maine to Florida;
- Completed an analysis of population structure; and
- Worked with 10 fishermen to test bycatch avoidance systems at sea.
With grantee matches of over $4.4 million, the program has generated a total of more than $9 million for river herring conservation.
Major funding for the River Herring Program is provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Direct private donations to NFWF and mitigation funds received through community service payments have also been put toward the program, with grantee organizations and additional public and private funders providing matching funds.