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North Carolina Department of Environment Quality

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Marine Fisheries - River Herring

Marine Fisheries

Pushing Upstream Toward River Herring Recovery
State Makes Strides, But Progress Will Come Slowly

By Patricia Smith
Fish Eye News
Aug. 2008 Archive

Each week this summer Cynthia Kroswek and Kelly Smith set beach seines at different spots along the Albemarle Sound then hauled the nets to shore.

It was a ritual for the two N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries technicians, who were sampling the juvenile fish population to see how many they catch.

“Each time we do it, we do it in the exact same spot,” said Kroswek, who was hired to work with the river herring program.

They pulled in silversides, crab, needlefish, bay anchovies, spot, bluegills and a variety of other species – just not river herring.

“This year, we haven’t caught any river herring yet,” said Kroswek, during one of her August rounds.

That’s not the way it should be.

“This would be the time of year we should be catching them,” Kroswek said.

But North Carolina’s river herring stocks are so depleted that the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission has placed a statewide moratorium on their harvest.

In response, the N.C. General Assembly provided funding to boost the state’s river herring research.

The 2007-2008 state budget appropriated $252,200 to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries for river herring programs, including one-time funding of $103,679 for the purchase of equipment such as a truck, boat, motor and trailer and Hydrolab Probes that will continuously test water quality. It also included yearly funding of $99,945 for three new positions and an annual operating budget of $48,576.

Additionally, the General Assembly appropriated $100,000 to the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program for river herring-related programs.

This year’s budget appropriated another $146,312 to DMF for river herring research.

“The work that we’re doing is reinstating the sampling program that we had in place in the 1970s and early 1980s, prior to us losing federal funding to do that work,” said Sara Winslow, DMF Elizabeth City District manager.

In fact, DMF has expanded the program from the monthly sampling done in the 1970s to weekly sampling now, Winslow said.

Biologists use trawls to sample spawning adults in spring to determine the age and sex of the fish and the percent of those fish that have previously spawned. Biologists can tell this by erosion markings on the scales.

The juvenile sampling program in the summer shows biologists whether the spring spawning season was successful, Winslow said. It also gives biologists an indication of what kind of spawning season to expect in three to five years when the juvenile fish mature, she said.

And since water quality can affect fish populations, every time they sample biologists take readings for water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen levels and conductivity – information the new Hydrolab Probes will deliver electronically and constantly, once installed.
    
All this information will help biologists reevaluate the river herring spawning area surveys from the 1970s and 1980s to determine if they are still functioning as a spawning area or if it is lost, Winslow said. Some of these spawning areas have not been evaluated in 20 years, she said.

“A lot of them have been developed and drained,” Winslow said.

The hope is that DMF can work in cooperation with other agencies to restore some of the habitats found to no longer function as spawning areas, Winslow said.

Winslow believes that enough habitat still survives in the Albemarle Sound area to support a viable river herring population some day.

When is unknown.

A 2005 stock assessment concluded that a best-case scenario would be full recovery by 2021.

There are too many unanswered questions to say for sure, Winslow said.

They are questions like, what is happening to the juvenile river herring when they leave the sounds and go to the ocean? The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is developing a River Herring Fishery Management Plan that should address this question.

Is there sufficient zooplankton food in the waters for juveniles to survive? A N.C. Fishery Resource Grant is looking at this issue.

What are the offshore impacts of predation from other species? It’s a question that needs to be answered, but no one, as of yet, is studying it.

Winslow, who has studied river herring for 29 years, said she remembers the days when river herring supported a great commercial and recreational fishery. And she has faith the fishery will return.

“Hopefully it will be in my lifetime,” Winslow said.

N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries • 3441 Arendell Street • Morehead City, NC 28557 • 252-726-7021 or 800-682-2632

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