Herring Creek is a small stream that plays a mighty role in the Martha’s Vineyard ecosystem. It’s the one waterway that connects Menemsha Pond and Squibnocket Pond, and the one place on the Island where blueback herring and alewives — also known as river herring — come home to reproduce.
River herring are anadromous fish and live most of their lives, three to five years, in the ocean. When it’s time to breed, they return to the exact river or pond where they were born.
Twenty years ago, the herring run at Herring Creek was described as “one of the largest on the East Coast, with up to 1.5 million fish making their way through the creek,” according to David H. Killoy, then chief of permits and enforcement for the Army Corps of Engineers.
But this year, only 23,000 river herring came home to spawn in Squibnocket Pond — a decrease of over 98 percent since 1996.
“I’ve been here since 1994, and the difference between then and now is dramatic, but these numbers really surprised us,” Bret Stearns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Natural Resources Department, told The Times.
This year’s count was determined by the Herring Creek Fish Count project, which Mr. Stearns and environmental technician Andrew Jacobs launched last year. With the help of Brad Chase from the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), Mr. Stearns and Mr. Jacobs 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 funneled the herring, and sometimes other animals like cormorants, river otters, and needlefish, into the tunnel. Specially designed software created a short video file when a herring-sized object passed through the tunnel. The software, FishTick, was originally designed to count salmon, but the Herring Creek project was the first to utilize it for river herring. A computer monitor at the laboratory showed a live feed of the herring counter, or “herring-cam”; footage can be seen on the department’s Facebook page. The Herring Creek Fish Count project required some tweaking after last year’s inaugural run, and those numbers are still being determined by watching real-time video, but Mr. Stearns said the bugs were largely worked out for this year, and he’s confident in the dismal numbers: “With the fish count project, we’re actually ahead of the curve when it comes to getting hard numbers.”
The count runs from March, when the early female “scouts” show up, through June.
“My guess was that we would have about half a million fish,” Mr. Stearns said. “This result was pretty shocking.”
Mr. Stearns attributes the massive decline here to a number of factors; offshore fishing tops the list. Trawlers outside the state three-mile boundary are pounding the Atlantic herring stocks. Atlantic herring breed at sea, and enormous numbers of river herring, which travel with their genetic cousins, are bycatch casualties.
“They’ve increased quotas for [Atlantic] herring in recent years, and that’s driven up the bycatch of river herring,” Mr. Stearns said. “They often travel together on the open ocean. They’re trying to reduce bycatch with observers, but I don’t know how effective that is with so many herring being hauled in that don’t look that different.”
The NOAA by-catch cap for river herring and shad in Greater Atlantic Region waters is 361 tons for 2016 through 2018. As of November 27, the total by-catch was metric 66.6 tons.
Mr. Stearns said an additional concern with river herring is that the laws of nature dictate that there can be no substitutes for Squibnocket-born river herring that perish at sea.
“When an anadromous fish like a blueback herring is caught at sea, that means it will never come home to reproduce as it’s genetically encrypted to do, and another fish will not take its place,” he said. “You can have good habitat and good food, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have more herring. With an anadromous fish, the rebound is extremely slow.”
The alarm about the river herring was sounded over a decade ago. Massachusetts is in the 12th year of a harvest moratorium. In 2005, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission put a three-year ban on fishing for alewives and blueback herring in creeks, manmade runs, and freshwater ponds. The ban also covered state waters to the federal line, three miles out to sea. But populations didn’t rebound. The ban was extended another three years, but numbers remained anemic. Eventually, in 2012, the ban was extended indefinitely, along the entire East Coast. The only subsistence river herring fishery currently conducted in state is under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the commonwealth and the Mashpee Wampanoag on Cape Cod.
In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) completed a benchmark stock assessment for river herring and found stocks on the Atlantic coast depleted to historic lows. The “depleted” determination was used instead of “overfished” and “overfishing.”
In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that alewife and blueback herring were “species of special concern,” not “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, as many thought they should be. After losing an appeal in 2013, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice challenged the decision in 2015 and won in 2017, requiring the NMFS to do a reassessment. In August, NOAA began a status review of alewife and blueback herring. But change won’t come soon. According to a NOAA spokesperson, a revised listing determination won’t be decided until January 2019, after more studies are done and extinction risk assessments are made.
This August, ASMFC published a revised herring stock assessment that supports Mr. Stearns’ assessment, and states bycatch casualties may be particularly high in southern New England. “The issue of river herring bycatch has received much attention recently. Bycatch of river herring does occur in commercial fisheries that are targeting other species … It is difficult to estimate, and efforts are being made to improve monitoring and reporting of this source of mortality. The commercial mid-water trawl, pair trawls, bottom trawl, and purse seine fisheries for Atlantic herring are a point of focus … Periodic reports of bycatch are also received from the long fin and short fin squid, whiting, and northern shrimp fisheries as well as menhaden bait fisheries. Reports are often anecdotal and not well documented.”
According to observer records between 2005 and 2015, 41 percent of total river herring bycatch was from the Mid-Atlantic region, 59 percent from New England. 27 percent of all river herring bycatch was from New England Small Mesh Bottom Trawl, which is a mix of fisheries, mostly Atlantic herring and longfin squid fishing in southern New England.
The report also suggests climate change, and an increase in predators, including striped bass and the fishermen trying to catch them, may be a contributing factor to the river herring decline. “Changes in rainfall patterns could affect the food production and cause higher mortality of juveniles as competition for limited zooplankton resources is believed a major factor affecting survival and growth of juveniles,” the report states. “It is possible that the increase in total mortality observed after 1999 and decrease in size of herring over time are the result of selective predation by increasing populations of striped bass, cormorants, seals, and other species of fish and wildlife that have apparently prospered as river herring have declined. Although not well quantified, anecdotally, there was a tremendous increase in unreported harvest of river herring both legally and illegally from the spawning runs, primarily for use as bait in the recreational striped bass fishery.
The assessment also stated that manmade dams and clogged sluiceways have also impeded the recovery of river herring. Mr. Stearns said he is in the final permitting of a project to dredge Herring Creek, which he hopes will provide bluebacks with better cover from predators and more consistent access to Squibnocket Pond.
“That’s been in the works for 10 years,” he said. “We hope the process will move quickly enough so we can do the work before next March.”
But the improved passage will have minimal impact on the overall river herring population if so few are coming home to roost.
“On a local level, we want to make sure the ones who beat the odds at sea can get home,” Mr. Stearns said.
Correction: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated the NOAA by-catch limit for river herring and shad in the Greater Atlantic Region in 2017 as 117,000 metric tons, which is the cap for Atlantic herring. The correct total for river herring and shad by-catch for the region is 361 metric tons.
River herring were determined to be a species of special concern in 2006 not 2013. That year NRDC and Earthjustice lost the appeal to reclassify the species, then won a challenged to that decision in 2015, which required the NOAA reclassification study, to to be completed in 2019.