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Herring counters ready for life on the run 3-20-16

Herring counters ready for life on the run

It's near that time when river herring begin their annual, miles-long trek upstream from Nantucket Sound to Mill Pond to spawn.

Cape Cod Times
By Mary Ann Bragg

Posted Mar. 20, 2016 at 2:00 AM
Updated Mar 20, 2016 at 6:43 AM

MARSTONS MILLS — It's near that time when river herring begin their annual, miles-long trek upstream from Nantucket Sound to Mill Pond to spawn, and, as in years past, a group of volunteer herring counters will be there to greet them.
The herring count will begin soon, once the surface water temperature reaches at least 52 degrees and the fish begin to arrive, Judy Heller, program manager at Three Bays Preservation Inc., told the 50 volunteers gathered Saturday at Liberty Hall. The water temperature on Saturday was a little over 45 degrees, Heller said.
"They've been spotted in Santuit River. They're around," she said. "These are probably just the scouts, making sure they can get through."
Photo gallery: Volunteers learn to count herring at local fish runs
The noon meeting was a training session for herring counters for the Mill Pond run, just down the road from Liberty Hall, and for the Centerville River herring run. For the Mill Pond count, each volunteer was asked to sign up for one-hour time slots but needs to count for only 10 minutes within that hour. The counts are conducted between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day, generally over a period of six to eight weeks.
Volunteers use a thermometer and a hand-held clicker, which are stored in a locked box at the herring run site, to report on water temperature and the number of herring. The data is compiled by Three Bays and sent to state officials.
"It's a pretty simple process," said Cotuit resident Dow Davis, a first-time volunteer. "It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years with the counts."
Volunteer Jamie Booth, of Osterville, said he checks on whether the herring are running at Mill Pond to gauge whether he'll be able to catch any stripers.
Video of volunteers preparing for annual herring count
"Usually, when the herring start coming up the ladder to the pond, the stripers will be out in the ocean," said Booth, who typically fishes off Sea View Avenue. "I've always been interested. When I first came down to the Cape, you could catch the herring and keep them, but they stopped that. I was watching the totals to see if the count was getting back up. We keep fishing out everything around here."
There is currently a moratorium on harvesting river herring, except for tribe members, Barnstable Natural Resource Officer Amy Croteau said at the training.
River herring is a general term that refers to two species of fish in the state's coastal waters: the alewife and the blueback herring, both similar in appearance. Both species are anadromous, meaning they are born in fresh water, such as Mill Pond, but spend the majority of their lives in the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn. In Massachusetts, alewives tend to begin their spawning season in late March, about a month earlier than the bluebacks, according to state records.
There are over 100 herring runs in Massachusetts, according to state records. The Mill Pond run is one of four active runs in Barnstable, and there are a handful of other runs that are inactive or under investigation as to whether they might be revitalized, Croteau said. The data collected from the volunteer counts is used by state and local officials to make management decisions that could help replenish river herring stock to the point where more harvesting could be possible, Croteau said.
"They are what we consider a keystone species," she said. "They're not only important indicators of pond and stream health but they also serve as a very important food source after the long winters for pretty much all of our local wildlife, like osprey, raccoon, fox, river otter. You name it, they probably eat it."
River herring could be affected by warming seas because of climate change, such as changing the time of their arrival at the runs like at Mill Pond, Heller said. Warming seas could also mean, over a couple of decades, that marine species considered local now will have moved north and been replaced by species typically seen now in the south, Croteau said.
"We're in the beginning stages to see that sort of stuff," she said.
Marstons Mills resident John LaCasse volunteered for the herring count because of what he has seen as "the natural habitat of Cape Cod being destroyed."
"We have to do our part to restore it," LaCasse said. "If we don't, the Cape won't be what it used to be."
— Follow Mary Ann Bragg on Twitter: @maryannbraggCCT.

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