Islanders, officials discuss the dire state of river herring

With the once abundant fish at historic lows, action is imperative.

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Local fishermen, tribe and town officials, state and federal officials, and concerned citizens gathered Monday in the cavernous Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Community Center to discuss the troubling decline in the river herring population on the Vineyard, and along the eastern seaboard.

As The Times reported on Nov. 29, the population for this migratory fish, a key species in the Island ecosystem, has dropped at a startling rate in recent years.

Twenty years ago, the river herring run at Herring Creek in Aquinnah was described as one of the largest on the East Coast, with up to 1.5 million fish making their way through the creek that runs between Menemsha Pond and Squibnocket Pond. But in 2017, under 23,000 river herring — alewife and blueback herring — came home to spawn in Squibnocket Pond, a decrease of over 98 percent since 1996.

“I had a ballpark guess,” Bret Stearns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Natural Resources Department, told the large gathering. “It seems like there’s been less and less, but I couldn’t have been more off. 23,000 is a startling number.”

The dismal count for 2017 showed a 34 percent drop from the paltry 2016 count of 35,000.

“The goal here today is to share information, and hopefully come up with some ideas for better management,” Stearns said.

Monday’s confab opened on a solemn note with a prayer from Chief Ryan Malonson, who spoke of old ways, when the herring was essential sustenance for the Wampanoag tribe. “We all came from the sea, our brothers, our sisters, our cousins. And now it is time for us to help those who can save our blessing of the herring. …May you find answers, and ask more questions that will help our brothers and sisters of the sea.”

Trawlers take terrible toll

The decimation done by offshore fishing was a recurring theme in the discussion. Trawlers outside the state’s three-mile boundary have been pounding the Atlantic herring stocks for years. Atlantic herring breed at sea, and enormous numbers of river herring, which travel with their genetic cousins, are bycatch casualties.

“Ninety-five percent of the public doesn’t know how much harm the midwater trawlers are doing,” charter fishing captain, and Aquinnah Deputy Shellfish Warden Buddy Vanderhoop said. “There are supposed to be 107 observers on boats, there no more than 45. …The big boat companies are paying off the right people. Two years ago they were within a half-mile of Block Island. They’re raping and pillaging the mackerel and herring industry. The public has to know this is happening right off our coasts. Something has to be done.”

Vanderhoop said the trawlers off the New England coasts are also decimating groundfish stocks, such as cod, haddock, flounder, and pollock.  

“The reason they came to the East Coast is because they totally devastated all the fisheries on the West Coast. Something has to be done soon, before we do run out of fish,” he said.

“I echo Buddy’s concern,” Paul Bagnall, Edgartown shellfish and herring warden, said. “Sector fishing isn’t working. The ‘Codfather’ proves that. They were all cheating at Georges Bank. The federal government doesn’t have the money for counters and the fishermen don’t want to pay for them. This speaks to a larger problem of how we manage our offshore fisheries.”

“We shouldn’t let them leave port without 100 percent coverage [by observers],” Vanderhoop said.

Bagnall said the vast majority of sea herring goes into poultry feed and fish bait.
“You can’t imagine what damage a midwater trawl can do,” Chilmark fisherman Chris Murphy said. “One hundred thousand is not a large catch. They can take a million pounds in a few days. The system was never meant to be fished that way.” Murphy suggested raising the cost of commercial herring permits to $1 million next year and $2 million the following year. “The best way to preserve fishermen’s jobs is to preserve the resource. It’s a federal issue. If you can’t shut it off, nothing we do will make a difference.”
Brad Chase, Division of Marine Fisheries senior biologist who has done extensive work on Martha’s Vineyard, agreed that ocean bycatch is a major factor. “It still absolutely is a major source of mortality in fish. …We’d like to see more shoreside sampling and better observer coverage.”

The science confirms the concerns at the confab.

In August 2017, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) published a revised herring stock assessment that states bycatch casualties may be particularly high in southern New England. “Bycatch of river herring does occur in commercial fisheries that are targeting other species. …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.”
Putting the issue in a historical perspective, Chase said in the early 20th century, there were 20 herring runs in Massachusetts that yielded catches of 1 million fish or more annually.

In the 1950s, Massachusetts trawlers began fishing for herring offshore, and in the 1970s, European ships joined the fray, and catches up to 70 million pounds of river herring were not uncommon.

“Those numbers tumbled very quickly,” Chase said. “There was a spike in the 80s and we thought it was coming back. It was around 2002 that we realized something was really wrong.”
Chase said there were 29 sites in Massachusetts monitored from 2006, when the statewide moratorium began, to 2015. While none of them showed significant population decline, biological data showed the fish were declining in size. “It means that fewer fish are getting older,” he said. “You have more young fish, fewer old fish, and that results in fewer breeders.”

Herring do’s

While making changes in federal regulations is a years-long process, some short-term measures are having success, most notably improved monitoring and the removal of man-made obstacles that block herring from their spawning grounds.
“It’s a hard species to assess because there are so many rivers these fish go up to spawn,” Chase said. “Hopefully in the next five years we’ll get better and maybe more runs like [the Aquinnah run] will be better equipped for stock assessment.”

The Aquinnah herring count was determined by the Herring Creek Fish Count project, which Stearns and environmental technician Andrew Jacobs launched in 2016. With the help of Chase and the DMF, Stearns and Jacobs built a passageway in Herring Creek, roughly six feet long and three feet wide, outfitted with an underwater camera. A weir 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. Then the video is scanned by human eyes. Footage can be seen on the department’s Facebook page. The count runs from March, when the early female “scouts” show up, through June.

Dam removal

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. Man-made obstructions have taken a heavy toll on spawning streams.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website lists several dam removal project success stories.

Mill Brook is a frequently cited example of a once-productive herring run compromised by obstructions, in this case to create the shallow Mill Pond in West Tisbury.

“Dam removal has become really important,” Chase said. “Dams can also be difficult to remove. It’s a case-by-case basis. With a situation like Mill Pond, it’s ultimately up to the municipality.”

Matt Pelikan’s November 2015 article in The Times, “A dam removed, the Tiasquam begins to heal” documents the immediate impact dam removal can have. According to West Tisbury herring warden Johnny Hoy, the day after a small dam was removed on the Tiasquam River during spawning season, alewives were moving up the stream above the drained pond. Hundreds arrived at the next obstacle upstream, the ancient dam at Look’s Pond, where author Geraldine Brooks was out gardening.

“At first I thought they were an unfamiliar kind of river grass, their sinuous brown backs arabesquing under the water,” she recalled in the article. “Then I caught the shimmer of their sides.”

Although dam removal can be an expensive proposition, Chase pointed to the $300 fish ladder at Mill Pond, which has shown a measure of promise.

Stearns said the tribe is in the final permitting process to obtain permission to dredge the Herring Creek Channel, which should be a big boost to herring travelling their eponymous creek, which is often impassable at low tide.

The shallow water appears to have changed migratory habits, with more fish making the trip into Squibnocket Pond at night, presumably to avoid predators, like the increasingly abundant cormorant.

Stearns said that the tribe has more latitude than the towns when it comes to getting federal permits for predator control, with cormorants at the top of the list.

“When I was growing up, you might see 10 of them all summer,” Vanderhoop said. “There was probably 300 of them sitting out there on the pond this morning.”

Self-policing can also help. Stearns said it wasn’t unusual for him to find people netting herring in Menemsha Pond for bait, especially during the Derby. “If you see people doing this, tell us about it,” he said. “Every little bit helps. We’re going to continue to do what we can on a small scale.”

The gathering ended on an up note.

Chase said that after the presentation, personnel from the state, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury were starting work to reopen the fish ladder and steps at the herring run at the southern end of Lagoon Pond, once a very productive run, closed since the 2006 moratorium. Funding for the work is from community preservation funds that voters from Tisbury and Oak Bluffs approved last spring at town meeting.

“Towns can always appeal for CPC funds to remove obstructions,” Chase said.

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