Where Have All the Herring Gone? 7/1/14

Where have all the herring gone?

The Enterprise
By Alice C. Elwell
Enterprise Correspondent
Posted Jul. 1, 2014 @ 6:00 am

Following a banner year in 2013, the Nemasket River herring run has dried up this year, with the number of fish down from roughly 840,000 last year to less than 600,000 this year.

MIDDLEBORO – Where have all the herring gone?
Following a banner year in 2013, the Nemasket River herring run has dried up this year, with the number of fish down from roughly 840,000 last year to less than 600,000 this year.
But experts, who have imposed bans on herring harvesting to deal with the lack of fish in previous years, aren't worried – yet.
"This is about half the fish that most of us were expecting for the year, although the run started later due to a cold winter. A one year fluctuation doesn't really mean anything as far as any trends," said David Cavanaugh, chairman of the Middleboro/Lakeville Herring Fisheries Commission.
"I think this year was more an effect of cold winter and later start more than anything else," Cavanaugh said. This year's run started on March 21, but didn't get heavy until early April, and ended in mid May, he said.
John Sheppard, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, analyzed the Middleboro data and agreed with Cavanaugh that the cold spring could have played a part in the decrease.
However, he said that wasn't the case across the state and several other runs showed an increase.
Sheppard said the Cape Cod Canal run rose from 253,000 last year to 278,000 this year. In Weymouth, this year's run on the Back River has been estimated at 450,000 compared to 380,000 last year.
The fish come up river each year to spawn.
Sheppard said all the numbers aren't in yet, but the only other run to show a decrease so far was in Marston Mills, where the numbers dropped from 57,000 fish last year to 47,000 this year.
"This year the run did appear to go down," Sheppard said of the fish on the Nemasket River in Middleboro.
The Nemasket River run bottomed out in 2005 with an all-time low of 400,000. Since the 2006 ban on harvesting herring, the numbers steadily increased until this year, but Sheppard hesitated to raise an alarm until a decrease has been documented a second and third year.
"Then I myself would see that as a warning sign."
Even with a decrease, the Middleboro/Lakeville run is still tops in the state, "By in large it is our largest run in coastal Massachusetts," Sheppard said.
Not only is it the largest, but the Middleboro/Lakeville run is also the most productive and the only one that is not under the jurisdiction of the state, and is instead managed by the towns of Middleboro and Lakeville.
Experts credit the pristine waters of the Assawompset Pond complex to the Nemasket's prolific herring fishery. Herring live most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean, but each spring the adults make their way from Mount Hope Bay to the complex to spawn. Females can lay up to 200 eggs each, but only one in 100 will mature to spawn in their natal pond.

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