Thursday, February 09, 2006

Trouble Brewing for River Herring

In a recent blog, I wrote about Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and their presence in Narragansett Bay at this time of year. Since almost nobody fishes the Bay in mid-winter, few Rhode Islanders ever see these. Some may remember the Russian freezer boats that used to moor off Jamestown. These hulking boats would buy Atlantic herring and mackeral from local fishers and freeze them to be sold overseas. Atlantic herring are a "sea herring", meaning that they spend their lives at sea and never migrate into fresh water.

More familiar to most of us are the river herring or "buckies" that run into the tributaries and creeks of the Bay's watershed every spring. Buckies are really 2 different species that look alike, the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). These fish are anadromous, meaning they spend their lives at sea, but migrate up rivers into freshwater lakes and ponds to spawn and lay their eggs. These eggs develop and young fish hatch in fresh water, growing to a couple of inches in length before making the journey to the ocean in late fall. River herring typically arrive in the Bay in early May, swarming into narrow creeks and working their way upstream. A few weeks later, the adult fish drop back downstream and return to sea.

Historically, Narragansett Bay may have had as many as fifty herring "runs" or tributaries that supported river herring. Today that number is down to about 15, most of which are in serious decline. A few notable runs are still in decent shape: Gilbert Stuart at the head of Narrow River, Buckeye Brook in Warwick, and the Nemasket in the Taunton River watershed are all still good places to find fish swimming in this ancient ritual of the spring.

In recent years, river herring stocks have declined region-wide. Fish counts at the major runs have declined from hundreds of thousands in just 2002 to less than ten thousand in 2005. No one knows exactly why, but possible explanations include overfishing, habitat destruction, and ecological shifts such as warmer water temperatures and predator/prey relationships. For years, Save The Bay has advocated (and even built) dam removal and fish passage systems to reconnect and restore herring populations Bay-wide, but these efforts alone have not been enough to save the stock.

Fishing regulations are already strict in Rhode Island, and we expect river herring to be closed later this spring.
Connecticut and Massachusetts have already taken steps to end all taking of River Herring. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has been responsive to this issue, and is planning public hearings and possibly emergency rules soon. The Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and Save The Bay are working together on this problem to educate our members and gather all the scientific information we can. We will communicate the hearing dates and info, as well as background and facts to all of you in the next week or so. Save The Bay certainly support fishing when it is sustainable and are working to restore the habitat and fish stocks. Unfortunately, to save the last river herring, it appears a full moratorium will be needed in Rhode Island.

If the river herring fishery is closed, we should take the opportunity to do good scientific fish counts and all the restoration we can. Volunteer with Save The Bay, DEM, or your local rivers council to monitor herring runs. When the run gets going, we'll do a blog from Buckeye Brook with its Keeper, Steve Insana, and show you some pictures and unique local angles on this issue. Stay tuned for updates, and feel free to e-mail me at -JT

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