Herring harvests are being cut by millions of pounds because of concerns about the important little fish's population, the federal government announced on Wednesday.
Herring fishing is a major industry in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, where the schooling fish are harvested for use as bait, food, fish oil and other products. But a recent assessment shows the fish's stock is in decline, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
The herring catch has been declining since 2013 and this year's catch again appears lower than previous years, the agency said in a statement.
"We expect this reduction to reduce the probability of overfishing in 2018," the NOAA said on its website.
Herring fishermen entered this year with a catch limit of more than 240 million pounds, but the regulatory New England Fishery Management Council recommended earlier this year that the number be cut back to a little more than 118 million pounds.
The NOAA announced on Wednesday that it is instead cutting the herring limit back to a little less than 110 million pounds, effective immediately. It stated on its website that "further reductions are necessary to lessen the risk of overfishing." The herring fishing season ends on Dec. 31 and parts of it could close earlier if fishermen get close to the catch limit.
The agency said it hopes the cutback will allow the fishery to avoid even deeper cuts in the future.
Jeff Kaelin, who works in government relations for herring harvester Lund's Fisheries of Cape May, New Jersey, said it's a prudent move. Warming oceans might be playing a role in holding back herring populations, Kaelin said.
"Things are changing in the ecosystem. We have to make this adjustment. It's pretty clear it's got to happen," he said.
Herring are important as bait in part because they are widely used for the commercial harvest of lobster, which is one of the most valuable species on the East Coast. The fish are mostly harvested in New England, with more than half of the 2016 catch coming to the docks in Maine.
Herring also are a crucial piece of the ocean food web, as they are eaten by larger fish and whales. This makes them vitally important to everything from whale watch cruises to tuna fishing boats, said Peter Baker, director of marine conservation in New England for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Everything we like to look at and catch pretty much depends on herring," he said.