Innovation brings a fish-eye view of Herring Creek to a worldwide audience

Bret Sterns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah Natural Resources Department, right, and environmental technician Andrew Jacobs, launched the Herring Creek Fish Count project. — Barry Stringfellow

Just off State Road in Aquinnah is a small creek that plays a mighty role in the Martha’s Vineyard ecosystem. Herring Creek is the one waterway that connects Menemsha Pond and Squibnocket Pond. Every spring, blueback herring and alewife that were born in Squibnocket Pond return after several years at sea to spawn a new generation.

To get an accurate count of how many herring are returning to Squibnocket Pond, Bret Sterns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Natural Resources Department, and environmental technician Andrew Jacobs launched the Herring Creek Fish Count project.

Mr. Sterns and Mr. Jacobs, with the help of Brad Chase from the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), built a passageway in Herring Creek, roughly six feet long and three feet wide, outfitted with an underwater camera. A weir across the shallow creek funnels the fish, and sometimes other animals, into the tunnel.

“Every fish that’s coming back here to spawn was born here,” Mr. Jacobs said, sitting in front of a monitor at the Wampanoag Environmental Laboratory, perched just above Herring Creek. “Not just to the Vineyard, but to the exact body of water on the Island. The herring that were spawned in the Great Pond go back to that exact location.”

“In the fall, all the ‘young of the year’ herring fry leave the pond, which is one of the main reasons the up-Island fishing is so great,” Mr. Sterns said. “That’s why you have so many great fish accessible by shore. Without this herring run, you wouldn’t see that level of activity.”


Tracking trends

Herring were once abundant on the Vineyard and along the East Coast, but plummeting numbers led to a ban of commercial herring fishing in 2006 in Massachusetts.

Connecticut, Rhode Island, and North Carolina also closed their fisheries for river herring, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed alewife and blueback herring as species of concern.

Ironically, the bans have made it more difficult to gauge the health of the herring population. “The state’s done a good job to add more protection, but we had a better grasp on the number of herring when they were taking them commercially, because you knew how many were going into a barrel,” Mr. Sterns said. “With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, we laid out a plan to get enumerated herring counts so we can compare year to year.

“With this project, we’ll be able to make week-by-week and year-by-year comparisons. You don’t really know what you have until you compile all the data and start finding trends.”

A computer monitor at the laboratory showed a live feed of the herring counter, or “herring-cam,” which streams online, 24/7, at

“It’s developed quite a following,” Mr. Sterns said.

“The best time to tune in is throughout the night and early morning,” Mr. Jacobs said. “It slows down around 6:30. It’s unusual to have so much activity at night, compared with other runs in the state. That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out.”

“I’ve only dealt with one herring run my entire life, so I thought that was normal. But talking to managers from the state, they thought that was very uncommon,” Mr. Sterns said.

Mr. Jacobs pointed to an EKG-like readout running across the bottom of his monitor. “We have motion-detection software that allows us to review the footage, but only when something passes by larger than our minimum threshold, so we’re not counting 20,000 minnows,” he said. “We can go straight to that and start counting herring. The software, FishTick, was originally designed to count salmon. We’re the first to utilize this for herring counts.”

This is the second year of the Herring Creek Fish Count project. “We had a few glitches to work out in the beginning of last year, but by this August at the latest, we’ll have a good idea of which direction the herring population is going,” Mr. Sterns said.

This year “herring-cam” went live in late March, when the first fish came home to Squibby. The piscatorial parade, which lasts roughly until the end of June, has hit its peak. “We’ve got some of our largest numbers heading into Squibnocket right now,” Mr. Jacobs said. “It’s kind of a frenzy. You end up with a film on the water from the [sperm] release.”

Other creatures have also made appearances on the Herring Creek “herring-cam.”

A highlight reel posted on the department’s Facebook page shows an otter chasing a minnow, a mating pair of horseshoe crabs, a cormorant on the prowl, and a passing school of needlefish.

“A lot of people don’t know that needlefish can live in saltwater and freshwater,” Mr. Jacobs said.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to really study this ecosystem,” Mr. Sterns said. “Right now we can give the average number of fish that travel in the afternoon and compare that later. We’ll be able to help state and national boards studying the herring fishery by providing data to show if the efforts to reduce offshore trawling or other protective measures are effective to our run. It’s not easy data to get. Most runs don’t have the ability to do what we can. We’re excited to be ahead of the curve in tracking the population.”

“We’re finding some interesting anomalies,” Mr. Jacobs said. “It all helps us figure out what works for this particular herring run. There’s not another one in the world like it.”