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."