BOSTON—Populations of river herring and shad are being decimated by commercial fishing along the Eastern seaboard, an environmental group claims in a lawsuit filed Monday against fisheries regulators.
Earthjustice demands in the suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission develop a plan to protect those species.
Stocks of river herring and shad on the East Coast have dropped more than 90 percent over the last two decades, and there is no scientific evidence that either species is recovering, the lawsuit said.
"They're disappearing before our eyes," said Roger Fleming, a Maine-based attorney for Earthjustice.
The group says fishermen trawling for mackerel and sea herring also are scooping up millions of river herring and shad. The "bycatch," as it is called, is either thrown out dead or sold with the other fish as lobster bait.
The suit was filed on behalf of the Martha's Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen's Association and Michael Flaherty, a fisherman from Wareham, Mass.
"Recreational fishermen have been doing our part for years to ensure river herring populations have the chance to rebound," said Flaherty in a statement. "It's time to close the loopholes and mandate the same from the industry."
The lawsuit claims that fisheries managers have violated federal law by failing to crack down on overfishing, set up catch limits and restore depleted stocks.
River herring is a major source of food for other fish, birds and mammals along the Eastern seaboard, the environmental group said.
Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said Monday she was not familiar with the lawsuit. But she said the commission's Shad and River Herring Management Board had asked regional fisheries councils to take steps to address the bycatch problem.
"The Board is concerned that many populations of river herring are in decline, or remain at depressed but stable levels, along the Atlantic coast," the commission's executive director, John O'Shea, wrote in letters sent in April 2009 to the New England Fishery Management Council and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
A spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service said the agency did not comment on pending litigation.