The Local Food Report: counting herring

What we have to talk about today is depressing. I'm sorry. But it's also important, and unfortunately, the two often seem to go hand in hand. What we have to talk about today is river herring—anadromous species like Bluebacks and Alewives that spend most of their life in the sea and then return via river to the pond where they were born to spawn—and the fact that since 2000, their numbers have dropped by a whopping 90 percent. I know. It's sad.

Photo courtesy David Constance

I knew river herring weren't doing well, but until I talked with Ryan Mann the other day, I didn't realize things were so bad. I met him at the mouth of the Herring River in Harwich, where a dam connects the headwaters to Hinckley Pond. Mann is the Outreach and Stewardship Coodinator for the Harwich Conservation Trust, and this time of year, he heads up a volunteer program helping the state document when the herring arrive, and how many there are. Dutiful volunteers literally stand at the head of the river, counting how many herring make it up into the pond, and record their numbers on a data pad. They count for 10 minutes out of every 80 minute shift, and note the weather and river velocity and water clarity and temperature and anything else that might help. Then they greet the next shift of volunteers and hand over the pad. It goes on from April 1 through May 31.

There are programs like this at herring runs all over the Cape—places like Wellfleet, Falmouth, Buzzards Bay, and Mashpee. Across the state and even up and down the Eastern seaboard, volunteers are trying to help scientists and people involved in fisheries management understand how many herring there really are, and why the decline has been so severe.

To understand that, though, we need to back up. River herring have actually been in decline for a while—since about 1960. Here's a diagram from a study done by the Herring Alliance:

As you can see, there's been a pretty steady population drop. In the 80s and 90s, when Massachusetts first started addressing the problem, work was focused on removing physical impediments that might stop the fish—building and repairing fish ladders in dams, cleaning up water quality, making sure water levels in rivers and ponds were high enough when it came time to swim upstream. It certainly helped, but river herring populations were still dropping. Why?

Well, different people will tell you different things, but many people seem to agree it's related to the industrial, mid-water trawling vessels that fish the shores of the Cape for other species, like Atlantic herring (which don't need fresh water spawning as part of their life cycle) and mackerel. River herring, many people think, is bycatch.

Of course, there are regulations against fishing for river herring—taking them from rivers with dip nets, the way people used to each the spring, is illegal, and so is having river herring make up more than a 5 percent of the total catch on bait boats. But it's difficult to regulate bycatch and poaching, and so the river herring keep disappearing.

The hope with the counting programs is that the volunteers will help the state get a handle on what's behind the problem, and give regulators some insight into the fish's lifecycle and migration patterns in order to somehow separate them from the Atlantic herring and mackerel fisheries. As Ryan Mann explained, right now, there's just too much they don't know. Let's hope it works. We've already lost one anadromous fish—the Atlantic Salmon, another important local food source. I'd hate to see river herring be the next to go.

If you're interested in reading more on river herring, I recommend heading over here for a general overview and over here for a more local take. If you're interested in getting involved in the counting in Harwich, contact Ryan Mann at 508.432.3997. Finally, if you're interested in getting involved with the larger issue, here's a list of what you can do from the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.


Anonymous said...

you might want to check out the numbers in Herring River in Wellfleet when they become available.

Good that the herring have friends!


Couves said...

Huge amounts of menhaden enter local rivers every year -- so much so that there is commercial fishing for them in the Taunton River and RI waters. The issue with herring, on the other hand, is quite troubling... I have a feeling there are issues other than over-fishing at work here.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous summary of a difficult situation - thanks much. Here is an easy-to-read summary of the problems affecting river herring and realistic solutions:

Also, check out this short video:

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