It is a sad and too-often-reported story.

The New England Fishery Management Council last week approved measures to protect the stocks of Atlantic herring. Atlantic herring are in deep trouble; their population is only 10 percent of what it was 20 years ago. The species is on the verge of collapse. Adding to that concern is the low number of juvenile herring. Clearly, forceful action is necessary.

Earlier this year federal regulators cut the herring harvest quota in half. But that is not enough. Last week the New England council considered a proposal to create a buffer zone out to 12 miles off shore in which midwater trawlers, which net mind-boggling numbers of fish with each pass, would be prohibited. It is in this zone where most of the Atlantic herring congregate along with, not incidentally, the creatures that feed on them.

Herring are forage fish. Codfish and tunas eat them, and whales do, too. And they are a principal food for puffin. Herring have high fat content that makes them ideal food for puffin chicks. Steve Kress, director of the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, has seen stress in the puffin communities he studies.

Predictably, commercial fishermen, particularly lobster fishermen who use herring as bait, don’t like the idea of the buffer zone. It is no doubt true that some commercial herring fishermen will take a financial hit if NOAA Fisheries gives the final approval of the New England council’s buffer zone. But eventually they will anyway if nothing is done to protect the resource.

It’s an old story: pay now or pay later. There is a big problem in the Gulf of Maine and it needs to be addressed. Better to do it now.

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