Herring runs depleted across the Island

Local stewards blame offshore trawlers’ bycatch.


Illuminated by a waxing gibbous moon, researchers wearing headlamps and waders hiked from the Wampanoag Environmental Laboratory to a herring counting station beside the creek that runs between Menemsha Pond and Squibnocket Pond. 

It was the height of the annual herring run in Aquinnah last Wednesday, and all was not well.

“The creek should be overflowing with herring. It should be silver,” said Bret Stearns, indirect services administrator for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). When he was younger, he would get physically knocked over by the rush of herring in the creek. 

“It seemed like it would last forever,” he said.

Instead, the small, rocky waterway that once ferried hundreds of thousands of river herring on their annual run to spawn hosted record low numbers of fish — half as many as last year. And it is not alone. 

River herring, once a lively Island fishery for food, bait, and fertilizer, have sharply declined from Edgartown to Aquinnah, the result of climate change, habitat destruction, and especially overfishing by offshore trawlers that net river herring as “bycatch,” the collateral capture of another species.

Rob Morrison, shellfish constable and herring warden for Edgartown, said Edgartown Great Pond no longer has a vibrant herring run.

The run starts at Katama Bay and travels along Atlantic Drive into Crackatuxet Cove, then into Edgartown Great Pond. A roadblock where the creek ends makes navigation harder now, and damage from the winter storms caused other blockages in the creek, Morrison said. 

Though some blockages were removed, Morrison plans to remove more physical barriers so the fish can get where they need to go.

Donovan McElligatt, shellfish constable and herring warden for Oak Bluffs, said there’s less herring than ever before at the Richard F. Madeiras Herring Run, where herring swim from Vineyard Sound through Lagoon Pond, a 534-acre tidal pond, and into Upper Lagoon Pond, a 13-acre freshwater body of water.

“It’s almost a state of emergency,” McElligatt said.

“I mean, we built a road over the herring run,” McElligatt said in reference to Randolph Way, a narrow dirt causeway that separates the two ponds. The run is now aided by a Denil ladder, concrete slabs and wooden planks, to take the fish under the road and protect them from predation.

The tribe’s laboratory team visited the Oak Bluffs run on Tuesday to collect samples from the herring there, but they didn’t see any fish.

West Tisbury shellfish constable Johnny Hoy said it’s been a weird year for the runs he manages at James Pond and Tisbury Great Pond. Almost all the herring that came through Tisbury Great Pond were taken out by cormorants, large waterbirds, he said.

The problem isn’t new, but it has gotten worse. Long gone are herring runs where waterways were so full that fish were pushed up onto the banks. Massachusetts imposed a moratorium on harvesting river herring in 2005 to aid the declining population, but the stock never rebounded.

The problem is especially acute in Aquinnah. Every year around March, adult river herring migrate from the sea to freshwater streams and ponds to spawn, and they always return to their natal waters to do so. But this year, the research team counted only 8,709 herring as of May 23, half as many as this time last year.

Only the tribe’s herring run produces accurate numbers on the fish population. A camera attached to the culvert at the creek counts each fish with a recording software called FishTick, which tracks movement.

On Wednesday, the researchers collected 20 herring from a trap set at the culvert. The fish were taken to the counting station, measured, identified by gender, and had two centimeter-long samples cut from their fins. The largest fish was 31 centimeters in length, or 12.2 inches. The herring were returned to the creek and released. 

The herring start to migrate from the ocean to the ponds in March, but most come in April through mid-May. Foam, called “herring snot,” is produced from their oils when many swim close to one another. It used to coat the surface of the creek from May through June, Stearns said. Now, no herring arrive in June, and there’s no “snot.”

When they first started the counting project in 2016, Stearns thought they’d see half a million herring each season. Now, they’re lucky if they see a tiny fraction of that. 

“It’s the most effective counting system in the commonwealth, but that’s not so hard when there’s not a lot of fish,” Andrew Jacobs, manager and environmental technician for the tribe’s laboratory, said.

Jacobs, Stearns, and the rest of the laboratory team think tons of the migrating river herring, including those that used to run through the tribe’s creek, are inadvertently taken by sea herring trawlers as bycatch. 

Sea herring are bigger than river herring, live only in saltwater, and remain a lucrative commercial fishery. They are closely related to river herring, and they tend to swim in the same ocean waters, making their way into rivers and streams from South Carolina up to Newfoundland. 

Brad Chase, diadromous fisheries project leader for Massachusetts, said some herring runs have improved in the state, including on Cape Cod and further up the coast, but “it’s modest improvement,” he said.

River herring have a long history on the Island. Farmers often used them as fertilizer to help their crops grow. Puritan settlers from Europe learned the technique from the Wampanoag, and passed laws to protect the fish.

In an effort to determine if the sea trawlers’ bycatch has killed the Island’s herring, Jacobs has arranged to send one fin clipping from each trapped fish to the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Santa Cruz, so researchers can compare their genetic makeup to the bycatch herring.

He will send the other fin clipping to the U.S. Geological Survey, the government’s largest science agency, to compare the genetic composition of the Aquinnah herring run to those caught elsewhere along the Atlantic Seaboard.

Over four nights, they took samples from 70 herrings.

It will take a few months to do the analysis, Jacobs said, but a study by researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz has concluded that “bycatch was an important source of mortality” for river herring “originating from rivers within the Mid-Atlantic and Southern New England.”

Jacobs hopes analysis of their herring’s DNA will show that the Island’s river herring also haven’t returned to spawn because they’re caught offshore.

Due to the statewide ban, tribal members, including the Island’s Wampanoag, are the only group in the state still allowed to fish for river herring, though only for cultural or sustenance reasons.

“It’s a historically important food resource for the tribe,” Maria Abate, an adjunct professor at Boston University, said. Abate also does research for the tribe.

The assurance of “a safe habitat for [the herring’s] return and a sustainable yield are an essential element to the sustained existence of the Wampanoag People,” Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the tribe, wrote in an April 22 letter to the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) in support of proposed changes to a management plan for the sea herring.

The council manages fisheries in federal waters, which extend from three nautical miles out to the end of the exclusive economic zone, 200 miles offshore. It is considering changing the state’s management plan to reduce the bycatch of river herring and rebuild the sea herring population. 

Though the council doesn’t implement, monitor, or enforce regulations, they create and send a proposal with recommendations to the federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is up to NOAA to approve or reject the proposal. The whole process can take several years. 

In her letter, Andrews-Maltais asked that NEFMC include measures to prohibit commercial fishing of sea herring in the south coastal area and Georges Bank, create a new inshore coastal trawling zone with a buffer from the Island’s shores, and lower bycatch caps.

She also urged the council to reinstate the bycatch-avoidance program with onboard and portside observers, who would also facilitate river herring genotyping “to safeguard against any particular management regions/areas being excessively impacted,” Andrews-Maltais wrote in her letter.

Stewardship of the herring runs remains strong on the Island, even though there’s not much left to protect.

“A lot of the time, it feels like the eleventh hour,” Jacobs said.

But for some, that’s enough. When Hoy, who physically digs a pathway from the ocean to James Pond, asked a few people to help him at the end of March, he thought he’d get six volunteers.

Instead, 18 people showed up.

“I’m a believer that the way we degraded everything, everybody has a little responsibility to do whatever they can, whether that’s recycling or helping the herring,” Hoy said.


  1. Thank you for this informative synopsis of the poor health of the island’s once-vibrant herring runs. Bycatch may be a significant factor in the decline of river herring populations, but those fish that survive the nets require a home to return to and spawn. No good environmental reason exists to protect the obsolete dams and failed culverts along Mill Brook. If Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation continues to dither this August, the artificial impoundment at the head of the coldwater brook will once again reach ninety degrees. Repair the culvert. https://www.marthasvineyardoutdoors.com/post/martha-s-vineyard-nonprofits-battle-over-failed-culvert-stream-ecology

  2. Hoy, thank you and the 18 volunteers who helped dig to save the herring, and thank you for encouraging us to do what we can to improve our ecosystems:
    -install bird houses
    -feed hummingbirds
    -install white metal roof panels
    -install solar panels on our property
    -reuse products
    -donate items rather then discard
    -plant a garden
    -plant daffodils, lilacs, and sweet peas
    -reduce water usage
    -use a heat pump water heater
    -use an electric heat pump to heat and cool, paired with solar panels
    -shop at stores and restaurants who provide complementary electric car charging (powered by their own solar panels)
    -wear natural fiber clothing like silk, wool, and cotton
    -refuse to buy polyester
    -refuse to buy plastic products
    -buy wood furniture 🪑
    -hang your clothes to dry
    -buy food in glass jars rather than cans
    -install small windmills on our property
    -drive fully electric cars, powered by our own solar panels or windmills
    -vote against the oil industry

    • What do white roof panels do? (Seriously, for once I’m not being a smart Alec. I really don’t know)

      • White roof panels reflect sunlight (heat) back into space. If every roof was white and covered in solar panels, this could cool the earth substantially.

  3. Herring are one of the most studied species on MV and I am sad for their decline. Maybe its bycatch that is impacting them, or maybe its a runaway seal population that requires enormous caloric intake to continue its steady and unaltered growth or maybe there are other factors. My belief is the combination of all these elements are indicative of an system that is totally out of balance. Income versus sustainability versus natural forces and whatever way I look at it we are always reacting to the forces of change and never ahead of the curve.

  4. I am encouraged that no one has blamed the windmills.
    Yet !
    But I am happy that someone thinks the seal population
    is experiencing “unaltered growth”. I was kind of worried for them
    last winter when the wind-o-phobes were claiming that the
    windmills were driving seals onto the beaches en mass.
    But regardless of the actual reason for this catastrophic decline
    in the herring population, it probably wouldn’t be happening if
    humans had some respect for other creatures, and took their
    responsibility as “stewards” seriously. The native Americans
    had it right, and as far as I can tell, still do.

  5. In the March 2, 2024, Times, Alex Elvin wrote:
    “James Pond once supported healthy herring and eel populations, which in turn supported local fishermen. But the channel to the 50-acre pond has become more closed as a result of storms and other causes.”

    In the 1950s (and presumably before), winter storms often drove sand against the shore to create a continuous beach and close the creek. In the spring we would drive down to take a look. If the creek was closed, my father would dig a narrow channel—enough to get the water flowing. We children “helped.” Quickly the sand banks started caving in and the creek widened.

    I don’t know if any records of creek closure were kept then.

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