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Annual river herring run marks spring in full swing 4-11-15

Annual river herring run marks spring in full swing
The Herald News

Posted Apr. 11, 2015 at 1:00 AM

Linda Murphy
Herald News Life Editor

Like daffodils, tulips and ice cream stands, river herring runs are a sign of the spring. And as people start seeing the fish in local rivers it's also a good time to start thinking about the ecological and economic benefits of river herring, said Barbara Brennessel.

Author of "The Alewives' Tale: The Life History and Ecology of River Herring in the Northeast," Brennessel said the fish were commercially important as far back as colonial days and even before that, Native Americans used them as food and fertilizer. Because the fish came up from the ocean to local rivers to spawn in the spring, the Native Americans could be assured that the fish would be available just as they began planting in the spring. A river herring would be planted in each mound of corn to fertilize the crop, said Brennessel. The easy-to-catch fish are still an important forage food for small animals and other fish such as cod.

In the early part of the 20th century, river herring were abundant and an important part of the local economy. Brennessel said in Taunton, where an abundance of the fish spawned in local rivers and estuaries, tourists would come to the city with their families to watch the showy, splashy river herring runs. Locals would sell tickets to sites to view the natural spectacle each spring, as well as rights to catch the fish, she said.

This Sunday, the public can view the river herring run at the second annual River Run Herring Festival in Middleboro, where she said there were thousands of fish at last year's inaugural event. The Taunton River and the rivers and estuaries that run off it are the largest river herring runs in the state, said Brennessel.

But the overall number of river herring in the state is still in sharp decline despite a moratorium on catching the fish that the state's Division of Marine Fisheries enacted in 2006. The primary reasons for the decline, said Brennessel, are over-harvesting (the fish are netted by trawlers fishing for larger Atlantic herring); habitat decline due to damming of the rivers that the fish used for spawning; and pollution in the rivers and streams.
River herring, a collective name for two species of herring, alewives and blueback, live in the ocean and come into the rivers to spawn in the spring. Pacific salmon do the same thing, but they die after spawning, said Brennessel. Once the river herring find a place they like to spawn, they return to the same spot year after year, which is one reason why habitat restoration efforts that are going on in various parts of the state are crucial to boosting the numbers of the fish, she said. Habitat restoration, done through a collaboration of various state agencies, volunteer groups and non-profits, includes removing dams, not rebuilding dams in places where they have failed such as in Taunton, and building fish ladders into dams.

"There's been some wonderful projects," she said.
Brennessel is a professor emerita of biology at Wheaton College. She is also the author of "Diamonds in the Marsh: The Natural History of the Diamondback Terrapin" and "Good Tidings: The History and Ecology of Shellfish Farming in the Northeast."

The second annual River Herring Run Festival is Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Oliver Mill Pond, Nemasket Street and Route 44 in Middleboro. Brennessel, who will be volunteering at the festival, said it will be a good opportunity for the public to see the river herring run in action and learn more about river herring. The festival will also feature vendors, food and more.

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