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Cape herring counts plummet 12-29-16

Despite improvements to local runs 2016 figures see steep declines

Cape Cod Times

By Doug Fraser

BREWSTER - With help from $1.67 million in federal grants, Brewster replaced a 2-foot-wide pipe with an 18-foot-wide culvert under Route 6A in 2011, restoring tidal flow to 20 acres of salt marsh and 3,000 feet of stream habitat, allowing more herring easier access to 400 acres of spawning habitat.

The response was dramatic.

Fish counts for the historic Stony Brook herring run, which is upstream of the Paines Creek bridge and new culvert, took off like a rocket. Over 41,000 river herring, actually two species alewives and bluebacks, were estimated to have come upstream to spawn in 2012. The next year more than 153,000 made the trip, and 271,363 in 2014.

But, after a slight drop-off in 2015, those numbers plummeted, with only 88,703 estimated in the run for 2016. That trend was mirrored on the majority of the Cape's herring runs this year, according to figures compiled by the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Of the 23 Cape streams and rivers monitored by the nonprofit organization and its volunteer fish counters and automated counting devices, nine showed a drop in spawners coming upstream last spring, many with big declines.

Six streams were not included in the count this year, many with a history of very low observed numbers, and three had observed numbers too low, or had other data problems that prevented a population estimate. Four others were being counted for the first time this year.

Only the Pilgrim Lake run in Orleans showed an increase over 2015, with nearly 20,000 herring migrating inland, five times the year before and as much as 20 times prior counts.

But the drop-off was not seen across the board. State numbers broke even with a mix of gains and losses, said Sara Turner, an aquatic biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

"The state is still doing well," said Turner, who works in the DMF anadromous fish program. "The numbers were down a bit overall, but nothing we are highly concerned about."

The state numbers were still well above what was seen in 2005 when red flags went up all along the Atlantic coast as river herring runs collapsed and scientists estimated herring had shrunk to only 5 percent of the historic population.

In 2006, Massachusetts and many other coastal states enacted a moratorium on the harvest of river herring that is still in place today. One sign of progress may be that in October the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which formulates plans to sustainably manage coastal species, granted permission for a limited commercial harvest for river herring in the Nemasket River in Middleboro and Lakeville. With more than a half-million fish returning each year since 2011, the town's joint fishery commission demonstrated the population was stable and was being well managed.

With a fin in both worlds, saltwater and freshwater, anadromous fish species present unique fishery management problems. They hatch and feed on zooplankton inland in freshwater ponds in the spring and migrate out to sea in late summer and fall. They stay at sea for two to four years, and then return each spring to spawn in the pond where they were born.

Dams, low water levels, fallen trees, sedimentation and neglected fish ladders can all prevent mature fish from reaching the ponds. While at sea, they school with Atlantic sea herring and can be caught with that fish. Although they are valuable to inland creatures - bringing protein from the sea into the diet of forest animals like foxes, coyotes and birds following a winter of food scarcity - human's primary use of the fish is decidedly non-food, as fertilizer, pet food and for bait.

Research dollars for species with limited commercial value are hard to come by, but Turner said a lot has been done in the 10 years since the moratorium was put in place to address the information shortfall on river herring -and to curtail overfishing - that scientists hope will enable better management of the species.

"A lot of good science is going on right now," Turner said.

The DMF recently launched a bycatch avoidance program with the Atlantic herring fleet to foster communication among boat captains with the goal of knowing and avoiding areas that show large amounts of river herring mixed in with schools of sea herring. Plus studies have been done, or are underway, to establish how inland habitat and environmental conditions affect river herring productivity.

Cape herring counts plummet

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HIDE CAPTION
A herring jumps out of the water in May as it tries to swim up the fish ladder at Stony Brook run in Brewster. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times file
HIDE CAPTION
In May, a gull swallows a herring plucked from Brewster's Stony Brook run. Counts of herring on the Cape have seen a sharp decline in the past two years. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times file
HIDE CAPTION
A herring jumps out of the water in May as it tries to swim up the fish ladder at Stony Brook run in Brewster. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times file
HIDE CAPTION
In May, a gull swallows a herring plucked from Brewster's Stony Brook run. Counts of herring on the Cape have seen a sharp decline in the past two years. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times file
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Posted Dec 29, 2016 at 7:49 PM
Updated Dec 29, 2016 at 8:03 PM
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Despite improvements to local runs 2016 figures see steep declines

By Doug Fraser

BREWSTER - With help from $1.67 million in federal grants, Brewster replaced a 2-foot-wide pipe with an 18-foot-wide culvert under Route 6A in 2011, restoring tidal flow to 20 acres of salt marsh and 3,000 feet of stream habitat, allowing more herring easier access to 400 acres of spawning habitat.

The response was dramatic.

Fish counts for the historic Stony Brook herring run, which is upstream of the Paines Creek bridge and new culvert, took off like a rocket. Over 41,000 river herring, actually two species alewives and bluebacks, were estimated to have come upstream to spawn in 2012. The next year more than 153,000 made the trip, and 271,363 in 2014.

But, after a slight drop-off in 2015, those numbers plummeted, with only 88,703 estimated in the run for 2016. That trend was mirrored on the majority of the Cape's herring runs this year, according to figures compiled by the Association to Preserve Cape Cod.

Of the 23 Cape streams and rivers monitored by the nonprofit organization and its volunteer fish counters and automated counting devices, nine showed a drop in spawners coming upstream last spring, many with big declines.

Six streams were not included in the count this year, many with a history of very low observed numbers, and three had observed numbers too low, or had other data problems that prevented a population estimate. Four others were being counted for the first time this year.

Only the Pilgrim Lake run in Orleans showed an increase over 2015, with nearly 20,000 herring migrating inland, five times the year before and as much as 20 times prior counts.

But the drop-off was not seen across the board. State numbers broke even with a mix of gains and losses, said Sara Turner, an aquatic biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

"The state is still doing well," said Turner, who works in the DMF anadromous fish program. "The numbers were down a bit overall, but nothing we are highly concerned about."

The state numbers were still well above what was seen in 2005 when red flags went up all along the Atlantic coast as river herring runs collapsed and scientists estimated herring had shrunk to only 5 percent of the historic population.

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In 2006, Massachusetts and many other coastal states enacted a moratorium on the harvest of river herring that is still in place today. One sign of progress may be that in October the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which formulates plans to sustainably manage coastal species, granted permission for a limited commercial harvest for river herring in the Nemasket River in Middleboro and Lakeville. With more than a half-million fish returning each year since 2011, the town's joint fishery commission demonstrated the population was stable and was being well managed.

With a fin in both worlds, saltwater and freshwater, anadromous fish species present unique fishery management problems. They hatch and feed on zooplankton inland in freshwater ponds in the spring and migrate out to sea in late summer and fall. They stay at sea for two to four years, and then return each spring to spawn in the pond where they were born.

Dams, low water levels, fallen trees, sedimentation and neglected fish ladders can all prevent mature fish from reaching the ponds. While at sea, they school with Atlantic sea herring and can be caught with that fish. Although they are valuable to inland creatures - bringing protein from the sea into the diet of forest animals like foxes, coyotes and birds following a winter of food scarcity - human's primary use of the fish is decidedly non-food, as fertilizer, pet food and for bait.

Research dollars for species with limited commercial value are hard to come by, but Turner said a lot has been done in the 10 years since the moratorium was put in place to address the information shortfall on river herring -and to curtail overfishing - that scientists hope will enable better management of the species.

"A lot of good science is going on right now," Turner said.

The DMF recently launched a bycatch avoidance program with the Atlantic herring fleet to foster communication among boat captains with the goal of knowing and avoiding areas that show large amounts of river herring mixed in with schools of sea herring. Plus studies have been done, or are underway, to establish how inland habitat and environmental conditions affect river herring productivity.

Visit Cape Cod's herring runs in this interactive map: />Efforts to physically make the journey easier for migrating fish are also paying off, said Turner.

Much of that work has occurred on the Cape, but researchers say simply sprucing up a run won't solve all of the complex problems the fishery faces. Water temperatures, food supply, drought and predators can all impact the numbers that return each year.

The reasons for the Cape's poor showing this year are still unknown, said Abigail Archer, a marine resource specialist with the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension and coordinator for the state River Herring Network.

"The data that needs to be collected is being collected," she said. "We're on the right track to getting answers, but we don't have them yet."

Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct

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