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Aquinnah Herring Cam Offers Fish's Eye View of Underwater Action 4-27-16

Aquinnah Herring Cam Offers Fish's Eye View of Underwater Action

Martha's Vineyard Gazette
Alex Elvin
Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Since installing the Island's first underwater herring cam in March, scientists for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), have had a fish's-eye view of herring, otters, cormorants and other species making their way through a historic herring run in Aquinnah.

Bret Stearns, director of natural resources for Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). — Alex Elvin
On a chilly afternoon this week, Bret Stearns, director of the tribe's natural resources department, along with lab manager Andrew Jacobs, stood at the top of a steep bank looking down at a simple fish weir and monitoring station between Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds. Small metal poles formed a V-shaped fence, forcing anything larger than a minnow into a small chamber where an underwater camera is running 24 hours a day. Occasionally a cormorant would splash to the surface on the other side and paddle its way upstream, under a culvert and into Squibnocket Pond.

A long-running moratorium on herring fishing in the state applies to both commercial and recreational use, but Native American tribes are allowed to harvest the fish for sustenance. The natural resources department has long sought a better system to monitor the population and ensure that the fish are being harvested sustainably.

In the past, commercial harvests could provide an estimate for the overall population, Mr. Stearns said, but solid numbers were out of reach. In recent years, the data has been purely anecdotal. "There was really nothing to document how the population was doing," Mr. Stearns said.

The new herring cam is one of three in the state. A major grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation helped pay for the project, along with a tribal wildlife grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. The $680,000 NFWF grant will fund several tribal projects, including the dredging of the herring creek, which has been filling in for decades. Mr. Stearns hoped that project would begin next winter.

Fish weir and monitoring station between Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds. — Alex Elvin
The state Division of Marine Fisheries provided the fish weir itself, which Mr. Jacobs said is relatively easy to set up and take down, and could be used elsewhere, including the Island's other major herring runs — at Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs, and Mill Brook and James Pond in West Tisbury.

Over the past month, the department has fine tuned the system, and already a wealth of visual data has been compiled. Among other things, the videos have revealed a much earlier arrival of herring than expected. The first scouts were observed in late March, followed by a steady trickle, with groups of 10 or 20 passing through at a time. Nearly all the herring have been observed at night, which was also a surprise. "Aside from seeing the scales from predation, we would have no idea that these guys are traveling through right now," Mr. Jacobs said.

DMF fisheries biologist Brad Chase, who helped install the system, said night movement has picked up on the Cape in recent decades, possibly as a result of increased predation. He also noted that the herring began running in Buzzards Bay and elsewhere on the Cape in February this year, but then dwindled during a cold spell in March and April. "So an early beginning, but not so much an early peak," he said.

Back in the control room at the Wampanoag shellfish hatchery on State Road, Mr. Jacobs played a recent video that captured a number of adult herring, each about the size of a trout, meandering back and forth in the chamber. A plastic wall in the background helps the fish stand out, and infrared technology makes them visible at night. The software isolates moments of activity and discards the extra footage. A team of volunteers and part-time workers will eventually watch the videos and count the fish. Mr. Stearns also hopes to involve Island schools in the process.

Another video shows a family of otters undulating through the weir one after the other, in pursuit of their dinner. (Herring are a major food source for osprey, herons, striped bass and many other species.) Among other things, the videos have revealed "a decent population of American eels," Mr. Jacobs said.

Some of the highlights so far have been posted on the Wampanoag Tribe Facebook page, and a live feed is available on the natural resource department website, wampnrd.com. A video capturing a juvenile striped bass was reposted by On the Water magazine and has had more than 16,000 views since April 11.

Lab manager Andrew Jacobs; camera will give clues to health of herring population. — Alex Elvin
"There's a lot of fish lovers out there," Mr. Stearns said, adding that the department has been getting calls, texts and emails at all hours of the day, from people watching the live feed. "A lot of the stuff that we find that's interesting we find because someone called or texted us," he said.

Most of the herring will arrive in early May, when the water temperature is around 50 degrees. The blossoming of shadbush happens to coincide with the annual run (shad is another name for herring), and larger striped bass tend to show up around the same time. "We're a little early to both those events," Mr. Stearns said this week.

A video that Mr. Jacobs took with an underwater camera last year shows the creek swarming with herring. "When they start running, we're talking very large numbers," he said. After spawning, the adults usually begin leaving in late May, followed by the fry in late August or September. Mr. Stearns plans to keep the equipment in place well into the season in order to work out the remaining bugs. Counting the fry would be more difficult, he said, since they are small enough to pass through the fence, but the department may still want to compare the relative numbers.

Although the project is officially for the benefit of the tribe, Mr. Stearns was open to sharing the data. Overfishing occurs mostly offshore, he said, so the options for local control are limited. "But I think this information helps all those groups that are working on the offshore fisheries — if we can show that populations are getting better or worse."

Mr. Stearns believes the population in Aquinnah is still healthy, but that it was too soon to draw any conclusions. "We kept an eye on them last year, but you can't see them all," he said. "That's really what the camera shows us, too. You can't see it all."

To view the live feed, visit wampnrd.com.

- See more at: https://vineyardgazette.com/news/2016/04/27/aquinnah-herring-cam-offers-fishs-eye-view-underwater-action#sthash.GWTbvXXJ.dpuf

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