Whether blueback herring will be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act will go back to the court for further review.

“River herring” is an umbrella term for alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, and blueback herring, Alosa aestivalis. River herring play an important role in the culture, ecology and economies of coastal towns in Massachusetts. Both species are anadromous meaning that they migrate from saltwater into freshwater environments, such as in the Jones River, to spawn in the spring.

In 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to list blueback herring as “threatened.” According to the petition, blueback herring have “suffered dramatic population declines” since the nineteenth-century, which are attributable to “fishing-related mortality, dams, dredging and blasting, water pollution, and global warming.”

NOAA Fisheries carried out a lengthy review in response to NRDC’s petition, but ultimately found that the species did not need to be listed. The finding was based on three things: 1) there were insufficient data to identify any subset of bluebacks as a “distinct population segment,” 2) that an extinction risk analysis found no danger of extinction, and 3) that the Mid-Atlantic regions did not constitute a significant portion of bluebacks’ range.

NRDC and four other organizations challenged NOAA Fisheries’ decision in court, filing an action in D.C District Court late in 2014. In a March 25, 2017 opinion document, the court agreed that NOAA Fisheries did not offer a connection between the facts and two of its essential conclusions, and the agency also failed to consider other important aspects in its review. Read the court’s full opinion document →

The court is vacating NOAA Fisheries’ original listing decision and will remand the issue back to the agency for further review. If blueback herring are eventually listed under the ESA, the species would receive more comprehensive management and protection, an official recovery plan, and habitat protection – much needed measures for a depleted species still in decline.

For more information, check out Jones River Watershed Association‘s work protecting and monitoring river herring in the Jones River, including dam removals and fish counts.