As part of the legal process of determining whether river herring, a close cousin of the commercially important Atlantic herring, qualifies for legal protection as a threatened species, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is launching a set of workshops in Gloucester on June 22.
The protection was requested last August by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If the government concludes that river herring warrants protection — "threatened" has a lesser threshold than a finding that an animal is "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act — the implications for the commercial herring and pelagics fisheries of the Atlantic Coast would be grave.
That is because river herring mix into schools of ocean herring.
Natural Resources Defense Council successfully petitioned NOAA to have Atlantic sturgeon granted the extreme protection of being an endangered species, although no stock assessment has ever been done on the ancient-looking armored giant that, like river herring, lives in the ocean but returns to river systems to spawn.
Gloucester is a center of the herring fishery — as reflected by the big, blue, steel-hulled boats tied up at the Jodrey State Fish Pier when not at work.
The Pew Environment Group, along with the NRDC, has been campaigning for protection for the river herring as a means of controlling the commercial fishery.
"The NRDC lawsuit is just another action in a long list of them in the campaign against mid-water vessels," said Jon Johnson, who works on Gloucester's mid-water trawlers but is not an official spokesman.
"The listing of river herring as threatened will be the justification of a host of new legal actions whose stated intent will be to uphold the legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act listing," Johnson said.
"The result will be to further restrict or even, in some areas, ban mid-water trawling which has been the stated goal of the herring campaign," he said. "That is what the Pew Charitable Trusts website states on its original grant to Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association to fund the herring campaign."
Atlantic herring is a healthy stock, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which reports that a 2009 stock assessment calculated the biomass at 652,000 metric tons.
River herring is another matter.
"Historically, shad and river herring spawned in virtually every river and tributary along the coast," reports the commission which manages stocks like river herring that hew the coastline and remain mostly in state waters, which extend three miles from the shoreline.
"Species of shad and river herring once supported the largest and most important commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic coast," the commission said on its website.
"Sadly, since colonial times, the blockage of spawning rivers by dams and other impediments, combined with habitat degradation and overfishing, have severely depleted shad and river herring populations."
Eric Hutchins, a habitat resource specialist with NOAA here in Gloucester, said he has been looking for river herring all spring, but has found them only twice working their way up the fish ladder in West Gloucester, behind the water treatment plant. On one occasion, he counted 37 river herring seeking fresh water for spawning; on another occasion he counted 10 river herring.
He described the sightings as better than in previous years, but noted that progress is relative, and given the historic records of river herring returning to the Annisquam estuary, the fish is not doing well, not here or anywhere compared to historic peaks.
In its petition for threatened status, the NRDC notes that "from 1950 through 1970, total commercial landings of alewives and blueback herring in Atlantic coastal states averaged more than 50 million pounds per year.
"Most Atlantic coastal streams and rivers were inhabited by one or both of the species. In the larger rivers, spawning runs could reach well into the millions of individual fish — according to one historical account, three quarters of a billion river herring were landed from the Potomac River in 1832," the nonprofit reported.
The announced schedule of three workshops on river herring was published last week.
"River herring are migratory fish that spend the majority of their lives at sea, but return to freshwater areas to spawn in the spring," a statement from NOAA said. "They are an important source of food for other valuable commercial and recreational fish populations including striped bass, cod and flounder.
"Several areas where additional information is needed include stock structure, extinction risk and potential impact of climate change on these species. NOAA has invited participants with specific expertise in these areas to help inform the workshops."
The June 22 workshop in Gloucester, set for NOAA's offices in Blackburn Industrial Park, will focus on stock structure.
The second workshop to be held at the Environmental Protection Agency offices, 5 Post Office Square, Boston, on July 10 will deal with extinction risk analyses, with a third to be held July 18-19 on climate change implications for the river herring at NOAA's Northeast headquarters in Gloucester.
NOAA's announcement said space is limited, so "anyone interested in attending the workshops should contact workshop leaders Tara Trinko Lake for workshop No. 1(207-866-4238), Sarah Laporte for workshop No. 2 (978-282-8477) and Diane Borggaard for workshop No. 3 (978-282-8453).
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.