In recent years, river herring have made huge strides toward being taken off the endangered species list. The remarkable angling success story is not just a matter of luck – it is an illustration of how governmental protection coupled with private initiatives can lead to the successful regeneration of a keystone species in our rivers and estuaries. With their numbers now stable, it may be time to ease restrictions on fishing for this important fish and allow year-round recreational fishing opportunities across North Carolina’s water systems.
For more than 17 years, fishing, both commercial and private, of river herring has been prohibited during the spawn season. River herring migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn starting as early as February until June. With the current restrictions in place, it is not possible to fish in freshwater bodies or rivers for river herring and only possible to fish for river herring in saltwater during the last 6 months of the year.
Relative abundance index of river herring (fish per net, 2.5- and 3.0-inch stretch mesh only) collected from Program 135 in Albemarle Sound during January through May, 1991–2021. * Survey suspended February 20, 2020 and did not resume until fall 2021.
According to the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, there have been some indications of population stabilization or slight improvement for certain river herring species in North Carolina. For example, in 2019, the Albemarle Sound Management Area, which includes several rivers where river herring populations have historically been important, showed an increase in total river herring landings compared to the previous year. This increase was primarily driven by an increase in landings of Alewife. Additionally, a 2018 stock assessment conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) reported that the Blueback herring population in the Albemarle Sound had stabilized or slightly increased in recent years.
Personal use fishing, also known as recreational fishing, is typically done on a smaller scale and often involves catch-and-release practices or taking only a few fish for personal consumption. In some cases, recreational fishing can have a positive impact on fish populations, as it can encourage conservation and responsible fishing practices. On the other hand, commercial fishing is typically done on a larger scale, often using more intensive fishing methods that can have a greater impact on fish populations. Commercial fishing can also involve harvesting fish for sale, which can create an economic incentive to catch as many fish as possible, potentially leading to overfishing and depletion of fish populations.
Since river herring populations are showing signs of rebounding, year-round recreational fishing of river herring should be reinstated in North Carolina. With the continued conservation efforts being conducted, proper recreational fishing licensing, and responsible fishing there should be no negative impact on the improvements of the river herring populations. As such, a bill has been proposed to the NC General Assembly to allow for year-round recreational fishing of river herring and includes a suggested licensing schedule. Stay up to date on the proposed bill’s progress by going here.
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- Figure 8, p 24. Fishery Management Plan Update – River Herring (August 2022). NC Department of Environmental Quality, Marine Fisheries Division.
- Fishery Management Plan Update – River Herring (August 2022). NC Department of Environmental Quality, Marine Fisheries Division.
- Shad & River Herring. Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.