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Herring make a comeback 5-13-16

Herring make a comeback
State fisheries experts say drought and other challenges remain

By Chris Burrell
The Patriot Ledger Posted May. 13, 2016 at 4:02
May 13, 2016 at 5:05 PM

WEYMOUTH – Karen Raffetto leaned over the railing alongside the Back River in Weymouth and pointed down into the steel gray water rushing past a concrete wall, urging her three grandchildren to look for the herring.
"They go wicked fast. All you see is a ripple," said Raffetto. "Did you see his white tummy, Danny?"
The herring ladder at Jackson Square in Weymouth and the pool just above the dam teemed with fish on a recent cool Tuesday afternoon. It's an action-packed spectacle of nature that draws a crowd and points to the success of state and local efforts to rebuild the stocks of a fish that's vital to the local ecosystem.
The state's expert on river herring said that in the last decade the number of herring in Massachusetts has rebounded five-fold.
"We are doing more with river herring than any other state," said Michael Armstrong, a chief biologist at the State Division of Marine Fisheries. "We have 175 ladders, by far the most of any state in the country."
Just over a decade ago faced with dwindling herring stock, the fisheries agency imposed a moratorium on catching either of the state's two species of river herring, the Alewife and the Blueback. Both are anadromous, born in fresh water but living the majority of their lives in ocean until it's time to spawn.
That reproductive clock compels the herring by the hundreds of thousands to swim back to their freshwater birthplaces. They shoot upstream, pushing against fast currents, and into fish ladders built at river dams.
A key player in monitoring the herring runs and in protecting their habitats on the South Shore is the North & South Rivers Watershed Association, which dispatched about 70 volunteers this spring to count herring and track water and air temperatures at four locations.
"River herring are a crucial link in the food chain in our estuaries and ocean," said Sara Grady, a biologist at the watershed association. "As a forage fish, they provide food for many species of predatory fish, some of great recreational and commercial importance like striped bass and bluefish, as well as birds like ospreys and herons."
And it's their migrations between fresh water and ocean transport nutrients that keep the rivers and their surroundings healthy, added Grady.
Despite the optimism about the herring comeback, challenges remain. Droughts and overuse of water in summer months push down water levels in streams and ponds, threatening the young herring that hatched in the spring.
Dams are another more obvious problem, and removing them is a primary goal for the watershed association, which has recently targeted the Tack Factory Dam on the Hanover-Norwell line as the next one to dismantle.
The nonprofit has raised $300,000 and needs another $100,000 to undertake the project.
"We applied for grants and hope we can do it this fall," said Grady.
The State Division of Ecological Restoration is currently overseeing nine dam removal projects in the state, three of them on the South Shore. Director Tim Purinton said the southeastern part of the state is ideal for seeing the benefits of dam removal.
"We do a lot in the southeast with its mix of migratory fish and cold water habitat," said Purinton, who said that dam removals help not just herring population but also the natural flow between river and floodplain.
Aside from all the science, there's a long history of human interaction with these fish. In the earliest days of European settlement, river herring numbered in the millions in Massachusetts. With their population rising again, their migrations are riveting.
"Culturally, you can't take your eyes off them," said Armstrong, who marveled especially at the herring that traverse through Weymouth. "The Back River is a great case. It's urban and they go through a tunnel under (Jackson) Square for a long ways. You're looking at 50,000 fish right there."
For volunteers herring counters like Joan Doucette, a retired nurse from Halifax, the river herring offer a chance to play a role in scientific study and be outdoors and up close to the ecosystem of the fish.
"I just love coming here. It's such a serene and natural spot," she said, while looking out over Glover Mill Pond in Pembroke at swans nesting and birds zigzagging over the water.
Her highest 10-minute count this year was 169 herring, and her most memorable moment was witnessing an osprey on the hunt, most likely for one of the herring in the pond.
"It's amazing how they dive straight under water," she said. "I'd never seen anything like it."
Chris Burrell may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow on Twitter @Burrell_Ledger.

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