West Tisbury seeks to control herring run
If West Tisbury has its way, the town will soon take over management of the two herring runs in its coastal ponds. Next Wednesday, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) will hear comments on the town's application to take over management of the historic fisheries from the state. This follows a vote by the town at the annual town meeting in April "...to authorize the Board of Selectman to request, from the State of Massachusetts, local control of the herring runs in the Town of West Tisbury." The DMF's public hearing is at 4:30 pm on August 22 at the Howes House.
In springtime, two species of river herring, alewifes and blueback herring, spawn in the freshwater streams that drain into headwaters of coastal ponds and inlets. Like the striped bass, another anadromous species, herring spawn in freshwater but spend the bulk of their lives in saltwater.
At one time there were at least a dozen herring runs on the Island, most of them in Edgartown. Herring have always been prized as a food fish, and they've also been utilized as bait for lobster and various gamefish, and even as fertilizer. Many people are drawn to their roe, both as a delicacy and as a sure sign that spring has returned once again to coastal New England.
Lively spring fishery at the Island's herring runs. Photo by Ralph Stewart
In West Tisbury two herring runs remain - one in Tisbury Great Pond, the other in James Pond in Lamberts Cove. In the Great Pond, herring once spawned at the head of several coves, and in Mill Brook and the Tiasquam River. Today the only appreciable spawning activity is in Mill Brook, which runs from the head of Town Cove up under the Edgartown Road into the Mill Pond. The run in James Pond is either non-existent or accidental these days. The pond is not always open to Vineyard Sound in the spring, when herring head for fresh water to spawn, and it has eutrophied to a point where it may be unable to support a successful spawn.
Over recent years, interested West Tisbury residents have maintained the run up Mill Brook, with varying degrees of success, and there have been intermittent discussions about trying to revive the run in James Pond. It's been difficult to press on with restoration projects too actively, however, since the runs are controlled by the state, which took over local herring runs early in the 20th century in an effort to make a mishmash of local regulations more uniform. The state also had the will and the means to protect the runs from being dammed or diverted by industrial development, mosquito control projects, or contrary private landowners, although their efforts were not always successful.
More recently, according to Phillips Brady, head of the DMF's Anadromous Fish Management Program, the state has supported towns that wanted to take over control of local herring runs. The state recognizes that local officials and fishermen have their hands, and their minds, on the pulse of the fishery to a degree that the state can't match. But the town must first develop a management plan for the herring fishery. The plan can be more restrictive than the state regulations, but not less so. The town is then expected to appoint a herring warden who would be responsible for instituting the plan. Gay Head was granted local control in 1953; Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, in 1995.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, herring runs were prized by local governments because they were commercially profitable. Some fish were consumed locally, but the bulk of the harvest was exported to Europe after being smoked or pickled.
Harvesting river herring continued to be a small-scale coastal fishery until the 1960s when factory ships from eastern Europe and the Far East began taking huge quantities of the fish in purse seines off the mid-Atlantic coast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, domestic landings topped out at over 30,000 metric tons (mt) in the late 1950s. Twenty years later, the figure had declined to 4,000 mt, and between 1996 and 2005, landings ranged from 300 to 900 mt.
Along with the increased fishing pressure, the decline of spawning habitat, due to development and/or pollution, has limited the herring's ability to reproduce. To remove pressure on the species when it is most vulnerable, in 2005 Massachusetts enacted a three-year moratorium on the harvest, possession, and sale of river herring. There have been anecdotal reports from around the Island that the runs this spring were a bit more promising than those in recent years, but the species is still far from recovery.
Though the runs are controlled by the state, local groups of fishermen and naturalists have from time to time taken it upon themselves to restore the freshwater sluices and creeks needed for spawning. Fishermen appreciate herring not only as bait, but also a critical link in the food chain: they are forage for several valuable coastal species. Restoring the runs is also appealing because it is something positive and tangible that one can do to stem the depressing tide of environmental degradation.
Nelson Bryant, who started poking around Tisbury Great Pond in the mid 1930s, remembers catching herring along the Mill Brook any way he could, but always handily because they were so plentiful. "We'd net 'em, we'd snag 'em, but just for the roe. If I squeezed one and milt [sperm] came out, I'd throw it back," he said this Tuesday. He doesn't recall anything resembling a commercial fishery, however, just town folks going down to take a few for their own use, as they'd utilize any number of plants and animals in season back before dwindling resources and advancing pollution changed the balance of so many ecosystems.
As for state control, Mr. Bryant wondered how the state had controlled the runs. "The only control would be to time the openings of the pond to let the herring in," he said, referring to the three or four times each year when the Great Pond is opened to the Atlantic. Controlling the opening of James Pond is a priority for those who would revive what they consider a dead pond.
If West Tisbury gains control of the herring runs, town officials would have time for some advance planning, - a rare luxury when it comes to fisheries management - since the state moratorium on taking herring is in effect until January 2009.