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Potential reopening of herring run reaches new milestone 12-15-16

Potential reopening of herring run reaches new milestone
SouthCoast Today

By Matthew Ferreira
Staff writer

It's now been a decade since area residents have been able to utilize one of the state's most abundant herring runs for fish catching - not only an important industry in local history but also a favorite pastime enjoyed for generations. Thanks to recent developments at the Middleboro-Lakeville run - namely a recent go-ahead from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission - residents are closer than ever since the 2006 ban to being able to enjoy the activity of catching at the run once again. Some factors pending, the Nemasket River could become the first run in the state to reopen to catching.

Following the 2006 statewide ban on herring catching implemented by the Commonwealth in response to dwindling populations, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission - made up of representatives from all Atlantic-coastal states - added another layer of protection for the species in 2012 with a moratorium on catching, with the caveat that the runs could reopen to catching should an entity express interest and could prove a sustainable yield with harvest. For the past two years, the Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission has been working toward that end and, as of October, has accomplished its goal.

"For the past two years, we have been working cooperatively with Mass. Marine Fisheries to show a sustainable yield in the Nemasket River. We provided count statistics from 1996 to present and harvest statistics from 1996 to the ban. We proposed a 10 percent harvest, roughly 30,000 fish maximum, over a five-week period," said Chair of the Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission Dave Cavanaugh. "On Oct. 25, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission accepted our proposal. We now have the 'permission slip' in our pocket should the towns choose to reopen recreational herring catching in the future. The next step will be to discuss if we want to open, accept input from both towns' selectmen and other boards, and input from the public."

Looking ahead to those next steps, Cavanaugh says there is still some apprehension about reopening, especially since that would make the Nemasket the only run open in Massachusetts.

"Currently, the feeling of some of the wardens is not to reopen if we are the only run in the state open, because that would put too much pressure on our run and require a lot of time and effort to administer and enforce catching," he said. "I expect we will seek input from the two towns' Boards of Selectmen, Conservation Commissions, and probably hold a public hearing at some point to garner public input about whether we should reopen herring catching or not. I don't have any specific time table, but I expect this to happen within the coming year."

"We would need to decide if the towns and public even wish to reopen catching, how many permits to allow, how much they would cost, the length of a harvest, what days would be open for catching, how best to administer and enforce catching regulations," he continued. "There would be details to work out at the state level also. Currently state regulations require a total herring catching ban, which would have to be revised. Also enforcement issues at the state level would need to be worked out, such as some type of tag to show that anyone in possession of herring caught them from a legally open run."

Since the ban, Cavanaugh says data has shown populations to be increasing slowly in the state's approximately 80 runs. Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Brad Chase says aside from the local herring fishery commission, only one other entity has expressed interest in reopening a run, but none seem to be in better shape than the Nemasket run that goes through Middleboro and Lakeville.

"It's pretty exciting. It's been 10 years now with no harvest whatsoever and at least now we feel we finally have a good plan with the Middleboro-Lakeville commission. In Mass. there's only been one other request to do this, but that run needs improved numbers before we can get to the point we've gotten to in this case," Chase said, noting the town of Wareham as having made the request which had to be turned down for the time being. "Prior to this, plans like this one had been approved (by the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission) in five states, now this makes six."

Chase said population restoration at the Nemasket run has been particularly successful among its counterparts in the state presumably due to some physical advantages.

"(The Nemasket Run) has the reputation for being the largest in the state. It has the largest amount of spawning habitat in Massachusetts at over 5,000 acres and its numbers over the past 10-20 years have shown the highest counts," he said. "It's one run where you could look at it and say there's certainly a way to have a sustainable harvest, and I think the local commission recognized that when they came to us to collaborate on this plan."

Chase also noted that commissions are seeing larger herring in the Nemasket, which is also a good sign that the species is thriving as larger-sized fish is a likely indicator that fish are living longer.

As far as why herring populations sank to the lows that prompted the ban on catching in the first place, Chase says the reason or reasons can't be pinned down with certainty, but the scientists who've studied the issue have some theories.

"We're not certain, but we have some data that points toward drought conditions around 2001-2002 that may have caused a crash. Also, before the ban, all the rivers were open. There were regulations in place but there were really no total catch limits. So, it's possible that the combination of those drought conditions and overharvesting led to the populations getting so low," he said.

Chase noted that sustaining herring populations is not only an important activity for its own sake, but for the sake of the ecosystem at large.

"People tend to be fixated on their value as fish, but they're also very important as food for other types of wildlife. Herring have always been an important prey for striped bass and larger predatory fish in general, birds, mammals. They all eat herring. They're a valuable piece of the food chain," he said.

While things are looking up on a large scale, a closer look at counts over recent years does reflect a slight dip. Though the concern is minor for now, Cavanaugh says a continuance of the recent trend could possibly put a halt to the current endeavor.

"There has been a decline in the past three years, which is a concern that would have to be taken into consideration in any decision to reopen, but we are still above the percentage for concern," he said. "More troubling this year is the ongoing drought. There is concern about herring fry being able to get out of the ponds and into the river, and also - if the drought continues - a concern for adult migration in the spring."

Should counts fall to unfavorable lows after opening, there are safeguards in place. According to the official "Nemasket River Sustainable Fishery Plan for River Herring" document, the 10 percent harvest limit could be reduced down to 5 percent should counts fall below the 25percent of the runs estimated total, and "three consecutive years with the run count below the 25th percentile of the time series will trigger a minimum 3-year closure the following year."

"In order to reopen the harvest, an opening threshold of three consecutive years above the TSM (time series mean) would have to occur," the document reads.

While herring catching is deeply ingrained in Middleboro and Lakeville, Cavanaugh says reactions to the idea of a reopening have been mixed among locals.

"There is public sentiment expressed informally to our wardens both for reopening catching, and not reopening. There is some general concern from some other towns' wardens that a harvest might decline the population as a whole. That's also the general reason for concern among the public that does not want to reopen," he said. "Again, that's what the hearing would be for - to formally get public input. At this point, all comments are just informal comments."

To stay up to date on local herring run-related activity, follow the Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission on Facebook, visit Mass. Marine Fisheries at http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dmf or Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission at www.asmfc.org.

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