Dead fish float in the sea with a boat in the background

An overloaded fishing net bursts off the coast of Norway, releasing thousands of dead and dying herring back into the sea © Audun Rikardsen

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: The rise and fall of the humble herring

The herring narrowly escaped extinction in the late twentieth century and while some populations, such as the Norwegian spring-spawning herring, have recovered to healthy levels, others continue to be threatened by illegal fishing.

Marine Biologist and wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen's Highly Commended photo depicts both sides of this story.

Audun was accompanying lifeguards in Norway on an expedition when they discovered a mass of floating dead and dying Norwegian spring-spawning herring. On the horizon bobbed a fishing boat with a broken net. It was clear the fishermen had taken more herring than the net could handle.

'We were out at sea to observe the interaction between killer whales and a fishery,' explains Audun. 'Killer whales often aggregate around fishing boats for leftover fish. That's when we saw thousands of herring drifting around - it was obvious it all came from a specific boat.'

Overfishing - catching fish faster than their populations can recover - is one of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems and future food supplies. It is estimated that more than a third of global fish stocks are being exploited at unsustainable levels.

The ripple effect of overfishing herring

In the Northern Atlantic Ocean, herring are a keystone species, which means many other organisms within the ecosystem rely on these fish and their eggs for survival.

Herring shape both ends of the food chain. At the bottom, they feed on plankton and other small organisms such as copepods, krill and fish larvae. At the top, they serve as a rich source of nutrients for many marine predators, including cod, saith, marcel, tuna, Atlantic salmon and sea trout.

They're also on the menu for marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals, as well as a variety of seabirds. In fact, one herring can provide four times as much energy as eating any other fish species.

Every year, herring migrate from their coastal spawning grounds to their feeding grounds out in the open ocean, often further north. This migration attracts a number of predators which work together to catch the herring, resulting in a spectacular feeding frenzy displaying a whole food web at work in one place. 

A cluster of clear eggs with black dotted eyes

A cluster of herring eggs and one newly hatched larva. Today, herring in some populations are smaller, thinner, produce less offspring and live shorter lives than those of previous generations. Scientists think this is due to overfishing, which has placed severe pressure on the species, as well as warming sea temperatures and habitat destruction. Image by Hoenny/wiki.

The late twentieth century saw global herring populations plummet to near extinction, mostly due to the use of new and advanced fishing equipment. The introduction of giant trawlers meant that fleets could stay out fishing for longer periods of time and larger quantities of fish could be captured.

There were no frameworks in place limiting the amount of fish that could be caught. As a result, global herring stocks dwindled to almost nothing. Norwegian spring-spawning herring in particular dropped from around 14 million tons to less than a million tons in just over a decade.

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The decimation of herring populations had a ripple effect on the oceanic ecosystem, causing a decline in many herring predators, including those at the top of the food web such as sharks and whales, as well as many seabirds.

Countries that depended on fishing, such as Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Russia, were hit hard. Herring were a staple food source for many communities in these countries and had historically sustained people through difficult times when food was scarce, such as during World War II. As the herring populations plummeted, the cost of fish increased, people lost their livelihoods and businesses were forced to close.

A 20-year, near-complete ban on herring fishing was introduced in the late 1970s to try and allow the species to recover. Following the lifting of this ban, strict regulations were put in place that still exist today.

Currently, there are set times in the year when herring cannot be fished at all and there is also a limit on the amount of herring a boat can catch in total in a season. These quotas are set after detailed surveys have been carried out to make sure stock levels remain sustainable. 

Whales and seabirds gather around a fishing boat

Whales and other marine animals have adapted to fishing boats, often gathering around to feed on fish that have managed to escape the nets © Shutterstock

Illegal fishing slows down recovery

Some populations, including the world's largest herring population - the Norwegian spring-spawning herring - have bounced back and the benefits are evident.

'A lot of my research is based on whales, and my colleagues and I have noticed an increase in the numbers of killer whales, humpbacks and fin whales in the last decade,' says Audun. 'The recovery of the herring has meant an increase in other animals that are connected to it.'

Other herring populations, however, remain threatened. This is down to a combination of illegal fishing and inaccurate stock estimates, both of which slow down the recovery rate.

Some companies fish either without a permit or with an incorrect one, while others continue to catch more fish than they are allowed to - hoping to get away with it.

Audun was quick to capture the herring spill on his camera and his photos were later used in court to help convict and fine the company responsible.

'We managed to bring back herring from near extinction because we took some drastic measures,' says Audun. 'However, if we managed fishing in a sustainable manner, we could've avoided going down this route to begin with.

'We kept fishing until the herring were almost extinct, but what we should have done is figured out how many herring there were in the sea and then fished accordingly.'

Assessing the size of fish stocks in the sea is an important task achieved through various methods, such as using echo sound. Acoustic waves are transmitted through the water and bounce back off fish, giving scientists an idea of the number of fish in the area.

The information helps to make informed decisions about sustainable practices, such as when to fish and what type of equipment should be used.

'What happened to herring can happen to other fish stocks,' says Audun. 'We need better science to inform sustainable management and change policies to avoid depleting fish stocks and repeating the disaster that was the near extinction of a keystone oceanic species.'