Herring to remain off limits to fishermen for three more years

Alice C. Elwell

The state is poised to extend the ban on fishing for river herring, meaning local fishermen will go another three years without the favorite bait of striped bass.

The Division of Marine fisheries voted to continue the ban and is waiting for the secretary of state to ratify the measure.

The moratorium against catching herring will be in effect up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to the Carolinas, in a joint effort by the coastal states to protect the species.

The new ban will take effect Jan. 1, the day after the current ban expires.

Over the past three years, the state has researched the dwindling numbers of herring and concluded that predators — namely striper, seals, dog fish and cormorants — are a prime cause, said Paul J. Diodati, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries. He estimates there are 60 million stripers in Massachusetts waters and about 30 million herring.

Peter J. Andrade, a Middleboro police lieutenant, says it is a shame he will be unable to use the natural bait that is so plentiful within his town.

“It’s the perfect bait, the bait of choice,” he said.

Andrade recalls how he used to start the spring with his family by gathering herring on the shores of the Nemasket River.

Andrade and his daughters would “live line” the herring, hooking a live fish on the end of a striper rig. “I’d toss them out and let them float in the flat current.”

Extra herring were frozen and used as cut bait for the remainder of the season, he said.

Recreational fishing in Massachusetts is a $1 billion industry.

Diodati estimates striped bass fishermen are responsible for at least two-thirds of that spending. So he says he looks carefully at protecting the trophy fish, which has been a proven benefit to the state.

“It’s possible to change the size limit, lowering it to make them more available to folks. It could help the herring populations,” he said.

Currently, the bag limit is two fish a day of no less than 28 inches. At one time, recreational fishermen could only take one striper, which had to be at least 36 inches long.

Prior to the 1980s management plan, Diodati said there was no daily bag limit and the only requirement was the stripers had to be 16 inches long.

There has been discussions on easing the bag limit, but Diodati says that probably won’t happen until at least 2010.

He questions whether it is wise to increase the striped bass catch to counter the dwindling numbers of herring.

“We rarely manage one stock to benefit another,” he said.

It was once thought that commercial fishing vessels played a large role in the depletion of herring, inadvertently catching them when fishing for other species, but Diodati said the by-catch “doesn’t seem excessive.”

Diodati said there is also a move to open federal waters to striper fishing. Currently, stripers can only be caught in state waters, up to 3 miles off shore. Others have suggested giving the striper game status, which would exclude them from commercial fishing.

While the state has decided to keep the herring fishery closed for another three years, the Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Commission governs the bountiful fishery, considered to be the most plentiful in the state and one of the best in the country.

The fishery is controlled through home rule, outside state jurisdiction.

Ron Burgess, a warden for the commission, said his board has yet to decide whether to continue the moratorium.

But Burgess said the sweeping herring ban not only prohibits taking herring, but outlaws the possession of the fish. If the commission voted to open the fishery in Middleboro, “You’d be in violation as soon as you left the herring run,” Burgess said.

“A lot of people want to see the moratorium lifted,” Burgess said.

But he supports the ban because it will preserve herring for the future.

“There are those that would like to open it, our job is to manage and make what is the best decision for the future,” he said.

The Enterprise