The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency that oversees saltwater fisheries, has agreed to spend a year collecting information on alewives and blueback river herring to see if they require federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"There are 24 active municipal alewife and blueback fisheries in Maine," said Kate Taylor at Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Commercial harvesting will continue in Maine for now because the state has submitted a sustainability plan to ASMFC. Most other Atlantic states have banned fishing for alewives and bluebacks in freshwater because the stocks are not at sustainable levels.

Alewives and bluebacks are sea-run fish collectively known as river herring. Unlike the more common Atlantic herring, a marine species that lives its whole life in the ocean, river herring live as mature fish in the ocean and return to freshwater streams to breed.

The river herring fishery is one of the oldest documented fisheries in North America, dating back over 350 years in some areas, according to NOAA. At one time historic runs from the Carolinas to the Maritimes brought millions of fish right into the backyards of colonial settlers, according to Nate Gray, a fisheries scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

"Now we've seen a collapse of those runs,"?said Gray, referring to the upstream migrations of spawning fish.

Several threats contributed to the overall decline of river herring, according to NOAA, including loss of habitat due to decreased access to spawning, construction of dams and other impediments to river migration, habitat degradation, fishing and increased predation due to recovering striped bass populations.

Regarding a potential endangered species listing, NOAA announced this week that a formal review would begin November 2 and take about a year. At that point NOAA will have made a decision on whether to propose listing the two fish species. A second long process, with public input, would then begin, to determine if the fish should be listed.

Endangered species listing is always politically controversial because the decision, by law, must be based on science, not on economic impacts.

Endangered species designation of alewives and bluebacks would permanently stop all management of the fisheries and all harvesting, within the geographic area determined to be threatened or endangered. It also would require protection and rehabilitation of river herring habitat. The listing, should it occur, may or may not include Maine, which has higher river herring populations than the states to the south.

If, within the next year, data and information do not indicate the fish are on the road to extinction, NOAA will drop the petition for listing, which was submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council this past August.

"During the next 60 days we are accepting data and information on the river herring to add to our review," said Marjorie Mooney-Seus of NOAA. "All public comments are welcome."

Comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA can be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov by following the directions on the website. The project identification number is RIN 0648-XA739. Written comments, which must also include the identification number, can be sent to Assistant Regional Administrator, NMFS, Northeast Regional Office, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930.