Story at a glance

  • Conservationists have been trying for years to restore Atlantic puffin populations in Maine after they had nearly vanished from the area.
  • New management measures instituted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now recognize the important role of the Atlantic herring.
  • Atlantic puffins and other coastal marine species heavily depend on Atlantic herring as a main source of food.

A recent win for the Atlantic herring, the skinny silver fish known for swimming together in huge schools, could prove positive for the beloved Atlantic puffin as well. 

It’s all thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issuing its final rule that implements Amendment 8 to the Atlantic herring Fishery Management Plan, which recognizes the important role that herring play for seabirds and other marine life. 

A delicate food web

Atlantic herring are one of the most important species in the Northeast due to the vast role they play in the marine ecosystem, forming the base of the food web as a forage fish for marine mammals and seabirds like the puffin. Schooling herring also serve as an important prey resource for migrating whale and dolphin populations, and provide affordable bait to pricier catches for fishermen, such as lobster and blue crab.

Puffins in particular are dependent on small fish to survive, and these new protections to the herring population could help them do that, said Don Lyons, director of conservation science for the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute in Bremen, Maine.

“Herring are certainly a key food source for puffins. The kind of fish they do best on, that they best raise chicks feeding,” Lyons said. “The declines of herring over the last decade or longer have not been good for puffins.”

The colorful beaked Atlantic puffin had nearly disappeared from Maine at one point, the only U.S. state where they nest. Decades of conservation work have finally brought Maine’s population of the birds to about 1,300 pairs that nest on small islands off the coast.

Good news for fish, bad news for fishermen

The new set of restrictions by NOAA go into effect starting Feb. 10, including a prohibition on the use of certain fishing gear in inshore waters. They also include new rules that account for herring’s role in the ecosystem, federal documents state.

The new measures formally recognize and account for the role of herring as forage in the ecosystem for the first time, and ensure annual commercial fishery catch levels are set to leave enough herring in the water to support locally breeding seabirds including Atlantic puffins and common terns, as well as prized sport fish such as striped bass.

A new prohibition on the use of giant trawls, or the dragging of massive fishing nets along the bottom of the ocean, will also be instituted in the nearshore waters from Connecticut through the Canadian border. The nets, which can reach the size of a football field, aren’t only responsible for pulling up millions of pounds of herring, but also disrupt the species’ spawning activity and the feeding activity of seabirds. 

While these new rules spell good news for the environment they also put fishermen at a disadvantage, adding to the inconvenience of a herring shortage they’ve already felt over the past several years. 

“A number of businesses are concerned about their ability to be viable,” Mary Beth Tooley, the director of government affairs for a Rockland, Maine-based bait dealer and herring harvester told The Associated Press. “In the very near short-term it has been a challenge.”

Conservationists rejoice

Ecstatic about the new guidelines are wildlife advocates, who now see a brighter future for not only the Atlantic puffin but also a slew of other New England marine species.

“Amendment 8 provides a huge boost to seabirds like Atlantic Puffins, ensuring there are plenty of herring in the ocean for them to eat and feed their young,” said Donald Lyons, director of conservation science at Audubon’s Seabird Institute. “Herring are the fish of choice for puffins, which are already struggling to find food in a warming ocean.

“These new management measures not only help birds but also cod, whales, seals, and many other marine predators, as well as the coastal communities that depend on a healthy fishery.”

Published on Jan 27, 2021