Herring return to Martha’s Vineyard waters

Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah Natural Resources Department had their first herring sighting of the year after underwater cameras were installed. — Jacob Bøtter

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head natural resources department recently documented the first herring sighting of the season with its underwater herring camera.

As part of the department’s river herring monitoring project, the camera is live-streaming 24 hours a day in order to capture any herring or other aquatic activity in real time.

The goal of the camera is to keep an accurate count of the anadromous fish population migrating into the Menemsha Pond complex.

According to the director of the natural resources department, Bret Stearns, herring are a culturally significant species for the Wampanoag people, and have been used as a sustenance food, as well as bait for catching bottomfish, for many years.

This is the fourth year the department has recorded the annual herring run, counting each individual fish that swims by the camera.

After analyzing three years of data, Stearns said the department concluded that a large percentage of fish come into the pond complex within just a couple of days’ time.

“This is not as gradual a process as people might think,” Stearns said. “These fish are moving in large pods, and could be wiped out very quickly.”

Stearns said that 40 years ago, around half a million fish were entering the run on an annual basis. In 2016, the department counted 34,938 herring; in 2017, 21,629 herring were recorded; in 2018, 32,272 herring entered the run.

Over three years of recording data, Stearns noted that the fish have been arriving later each year, throughout early May.

Stearns said overfishing of herring offshore, and environmental impacts like increased nitrification of ponds and large amounts of sediment deposits in the ponds, are shrinking their numbers.

Now, only Wampanoag tribe members are permitted to fish herring in the run, and stringent regulations are placed on commercial fishing of the species.

Before October, the department is planning on using a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to dredge areas of Herring Creek where large amounts of sediment have accumulated.

“These efforts count — we are talking about a very finite number of fish, from what was once a robust fishery,” Stearns said.