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Herring counters ready for spring migration 3-26-17

Herring counters ready for spring migration

By Lee Roscoe
HARWICH -- Harwich retiree Ken Whiting loves the difficulties of collecting herring data.

"Dealing with the elements, it can be cold, rainy, wind off the pond is in your face; you're straddling a piece of concrete between two bodies of water. It's most difficult to count when the fish are leaving," he said.

His grandchildren love to count with him and "it's quite an experience seeing all the predators in pursuit of herring."

"I'm a recreational fisherman, a fish and bird carver; I like getting out and enjoying nature, and being able to help out the environment. I have concerns about fish conservation; herring affects everything in the food chain," he added.

True, for according to Association to Preserve Cape Cod's Senior Scientist Jo Ann Muramoto, herring play a very important role in the food chain. Eagles, herons, ospreys, terns, gulls, seals, whales, seals, sea and freshwater bass, and even eels and brook trout eat them.

But as Muramoto explained at a forum for herring counters hosted by Harwich Conservation Trust last week at Harwich Community Center, herring are integral to the ecology of pond, stream and ocean, and so much a part of the Cape's coastal heritage, history and economy. And herring are at risk.

Alewife and blueback herring are anadromous species, which means they travel from ocean to freshwater to spawn. Both are lumped under the name river herring, because "they are hard to ID, unless dissected, and we don't want to do that," Muramoto explained.

Humans and herring have been interacting on Cape Cod since Native American times; colonists fought over rights to runs, when millions of herring were taken for food, fertilizer and baitfish. Muramoto said herring numbers dropped over time to hundreds of thousands in the 1970s to tens of thousands in the 2000s, startling not just Cape towns' natural resource departments but the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA into conservation efforts.

These efforts rely on fish counts to help create herring run restoration. Cape counts began with three towns in 2007 after Massachusetts put a moratorium on the taking of herring in 2005, making it illegal to catch or even touch the fish. (Harvest exceptions are made for Mashpee Wampanoag). Harwich enacted its own moratorium in 2004.

Muramoto said there are 41 herring runs on the Cape. Not all are surveyed; some show zero herring populations. APCC helps coordinate 19 runs in 12 towns on Cape. Of about 17 restoration projects, five are in planning, 11 are completed, including Herring River, Harwich; Pilgrim Lake, Orleans; Bridge Pond, Eastham, and Stony Brook in Brewster, whose run size Miramoto said, grew in 2014 by a "factor of ten" to hundreds of thousands, once a culvert was expanded. The year 2014 was a banner year for herring, but numbers tumbled from 2015 to 2016.

Scientists and planners want to understand what contributes to the cycles: is it expanding grey seal numbers, factory trawlers, climate change?

"Herring like it 50 degrees or warmer to start to migrate upstream to turbulent water, homing back from the continental shelf, to streams and ponds of their birth," Muramoto said.

Population declines could be biological, she suggested. During an eight- to 10-year life, herring breed about three times so population size may be affected by the "age grade" of returning fish. Other factors could include poaching or habitat degradation or human usage of water which depletes groundwater levels in lakes and streams, or barriers such as dams and faulty fish ladders.

In Harwich, herring pass seven miles from Nantucket Sound up the Herring River into Hinckley's Pond to spawn. Nine times a day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., April 1 to June 1, various volunteers wearing dull-colored clothing and polarized sunglasses, are stationed where the fish enter the ponds. They tally the herring using hand counting clickers and also note water and air temperature, weather, predators or other fish species.

Muramoto congratulated Harwich on having the greatest amount of counts -- 478 in 2016. The Department of Marine Fisheries' first electronic counter on Cape in Harwich tallied more than 340,000 fish, but it's humans who are needed.

"The greater number of counts, the smaller the margin of error, the better size estimate," Muramoto said. "Numbers may be high for us, but they are really low compared to historical numbers for this fragile resource."

Harwich has enough volunteers but if you want to get involved in your town, call Muramoto at 508 619 3185, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

From Forum

Herring Public Forum Exemption to Wetland Act for herring protection
DaveC > 25-July-2016

Herring Run Counts 2015 Herring Counts
DaveC > 25-July-2016

Herring Management Town Brook alewives get a free ride to Billington Sea
KnightofNi > 29-April-2016

Herring Public Forum River Herring Migration Series at WHOI
KnightofNi > 30-April-2015

Eels Fines Increased for Herring Poaching
Jones River > 15-April-2015

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