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Cape herring running strong, but caution urged 5-11-16

Cape herring running strong, but caution urged

 

ORLEANS — As Keeper of The Run, Scott Johnson regularly checks the water level in the creek leading from Lonnie's Pond to Pilgrim Lake.
Too much and it's a hard uphill slog in the narrow fish run. Too little and the fish get marooned in dead end pools, picked off by predators or die a slow death as the oxygen runs out. He can control the level by removing or adding boards at a dam on the lake.
- Photo Gallery: The herring are running at Stony Brook in Brewster
This could be the best year for herring in the run in many years, Johnson said, and the evidence extends beyond the fish counted. He's seen trails to the run worn smooth by otters, a red fox with a fish in its mouth, snapping turtles waiting behind a board in the fish ladder, the seals, the gulls, hawks, and osprey all waiting their turn.
Video: Herring are returning to Cape Cod
"Like any other animal you grew up with, and you love, and then you see them disappear, to have them come back, makes you feel good," Johnson said.

ORLEANS — As Keeper of The Run, Scott Johnson regularly checks the water level in the creek leading from Lonnie's Pond to Pilgrim Lake.
Too much and it's a hard uphill slog in the narrow fish run. Too little and the fish get marooned in dead end pools, picked off by predators or die a slow death as the oxygen runs out. He can control the level by removing or adding boards at a dam on the lake.
- Photo Gallery: The herring are running at Stony Brook in Brewster
This could be the best year for herring in the run in many years, Johnson said, and the evidence extends beyond the fish counted. He's seen trails to the run worn smooth by otters, a red fox with a fish in its mouth, snapping turtles waiting behind a board in the fish ladder, the seals, the gulls, hawks, and osprey all waiting their turn.
Video: Herring are returning to Cape Cod
"Like any other animal you grew up with, and you love, and then you see them disappear, to have them come back, makes you feel good," Johnson said.

The Cape's most prolific runs are also showing improvements with 271,000 estimated fish at Stony Brook in Brewster in 2014 and more than 251,000 fish last year, up significantly from the dark days of 2009 when the run's population was estimated at a little more than 11,000 herring.
"My bottom line is, I'm optimistic," said Alison Bowden, River, Coast, and Oceans Program director for the Nature Conservancy, which helped fund bycatch avoidance research by the Division of Marine Fisheries and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology.
Few fish species cross from the open ocean into rivers and lakes, and river herring needed traditional fishery management at sea as well as shore side husbandry. Success in one realm is difficult enough but the mystery of the herrings' disappearance required detective work and unprecedented levels of cooperation between agencies with typically little to say to one another.
A survey more than a decade ago found nearly 400 blockages in the state's 215 coastal waterways that kept fish from reaching spawning grounds. Half of 175 fish passages built to get fish past dams were not working. Now, road engineers doing bridge and culvert replacements are collaborating with wetlands and fisheries advocates, and scientists to restore tidal flow to marshes and access by building fish passages.
"We are certainly on a trajectory to significant gains in fish passage through dam removals and enhancements to fish passages," said Eric Hutchins, habitat restoration coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries in the Northeast.
Over the past decade, the NOAA Restoration Center funded 41 fish passage projects in Massachusetts, with $9.3 million in grants.
"It's gained extreme momentum," Hutchins said. "Now we are receiving countless top quality proposals. Demand is outstripping the supply even though we support more (projects) than ever."
The saltwater license program, established in 2011, provided funding for the state to hire fisheries biologists for the anadromous species, like river herring, which spend a portion of their life in fresh and salt water. Chase's department helps design, build and repair fish runs for towns.
"The Cape is one region that is energized," Chase said. The size of the rivers and streams on the Cape are relatively small and lend themselves to public viewing and counting by volunteers. That, in turn, sparks interest and advocacy. In recent years, the Association to Preserve Cape Cod has coordinated volunteer efforts and towns have contributed labor and money to clear and repair runs.
But Chase is concerned about water quality on the Cape, as dramatic landscape changes and population increases led to higher nutrient discharge into streams. That fosters rapid algal growth and leads to deoxygenated water and mucky bottom habitat. Water use has increased, leading to lower groundwater levels and less water for runs in some places, Chase said.
"That's where I worry about the Cape. A lot of people are tuned in, but you need enough who want to move the politics," Chase said about expensive and stalled wastewater solutions in many towns.
Some strands of algae cling to dead stalks sticking up out of the creek leading from Pilgrim Lake. But the water is as clear as a looking glass over a white sandy bottom where the dark backs of herring are easy to spot.
Fishermen aid in recovery
While Johnson blames Russian trawlers in the 1960s for the major decline, many found fault with a new industrial-scale fishery for Atlantic herring in the Northeast they claim is catching large amounts of river herring schooling offshore with their seafaring cousins. Dominated by large vessels operating in pairs towing a massive net between them, the Atlantic herring fishery is too efficient at catching fish, critics charge, and has little oversight. They want independent observers on board those vessels at all times, making sure river herring aren't being caught and dumped at sea.
The industry pushed back, saying it is too expensive for them to pay for 100 percent observer coverage. The state and the University of Massachusetts have been trying to bridge the information gap with cooperative research involving most of the herring fleet.
"The progress that has been made in the past 10 years is really significant," said SMAST scientist David Bethoney.
Bethoney believes the industry, especially the vessel captains, has cooperated because they don't want any bycatch. Herring are a low-priced species and have to be caught in volume to be profitable. Other species mixed in with the catch make it harder to sort, adding expense and reducing profits. In addition, the fleet can be shut down short of its annual Atlantic herring quota if it catches too many river herring.
Boat captains also have entered the location of their tows and their catch for each day into a laptop and their catch was sampled in port to check on river herring bycatch. Areas showing high percentages of river herring were marked on a map for captains to avoid. Preliminary results show that river herring and shad (another anadromous fish species) bycatch was significantly down in the years since 2011 when the bycatch avoidance program began.
Genetic research by SMAST and the University of Massachusetts Amherst also helped identify the set of rivers or streams where fish being caught by herring trawlers spawned, information that could help answer the question of whether river herring from a particular run group together and could possibly be dramatically impacted by fishing in that area.
Bethoney hopes future research is focused on forecasting where river herring will be and notifying captains so they can avoid large bycatch incidents. A second goal is to pinpoint areas where river herring from a particularly weak run or runs tend to gather, Bethoney said.
"We're trying to understand what's really happening. Who is getting caught and where and when does it occur," said Bowden of the Nature Conservancy. "They are a very resilient species and there is an unprecedented effort to restore them."

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