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MIDDLEBORO/LAKEVILLE: Big decision for towns, Herring Fishery Commission 5-18-17

MIDDLEBORO/LAKEVILLE: Big decision for towns, Herring Fishery Commission
SouthCoast Today

By Robert Barboza/Gazette Correspondent
MIDDLEBORO — Each spring for countless centuries, hundreds of thousands of herring have made an arduous journey from Mount Hope Bay, upstream along the Taunton and Nemasket Rivers, to reach their traditional spawning grounds in the Assawompsett Ponds Complex in Lakeville.

For thousands of years, too, people living in these parts depended on the abundant alewife fishery as an important source of food and income.

Native Americans knew well that when the shadbushes bloomed, it was time to gather at Nemasket and Muttock, the "fishing places" in the Wampanoag language, to harvest the annual herring migration. The English colonists that followed them also gathered at the riversides each spring to take advantage of the bounty of fish, both for personal consumption and for export overseas in salted or smoked form.

These days, a joint Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission supervises the local herring runs, closed to fishing since 2006, when a sharp decline in herring populations prompted a statewide ban on fishing.

At the time, Middleboro had one of the most active herring runs in the state; this year, more than 8,000 people turned out to Oliver Mill Park for the annual Herring Festival so they could see the spectacular rush of migrating fish through the river channels now closed to fishing. A municipal "fish house" that brined and smoked thousands of herring caught at the run once stood nearby, providing a substantial source of revenue for the town as well as those employed there.

THE ISSUE: Towns of Middleboro and Lakeville consider lifting ban on fishing at Wareham Street and Oliver Mill Park herring runs.

LOCAL IMPACT: Middleboro and Lakeville selectmen express interest with moving forward with allowing recreational herring fishing, but Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishing Commission has yet to take an official stance and is asking for public input and is in the process of looking at environmental and regulatory concerns.

Now that the fishery has rebounded to respectable numbers, the two towns are considering re-opening the local herring runs, possibly as early as the 2018 spring migration. The move would help revive a tradition that has been ongoing – and well regulated – since the 1700s.

Today, about 600,000 fish per year are making the trip upstream to the ponds complex, estimates indicate. It's time to think about allowing a reasonable sustainable harvest of herring once again, agrees almost everyone involved, from the federal government to the local level.

COMMISSION CONSIDERS SOME NEW REGULATIONS

Around the year 2000, an estimated one million herring per year were traveling up the Nemasket River to spawn. Per state guidelines, up to 10 percent of the migration was allowed to be caught; in Middleboro, the annual permit fee was $25.

The Middleboro-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission has been looking forward to the day when the local herring runs might re-open. Working with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the commission has developed a herring management plan, and has received federal permission to re-open the runs for public fishing.

Herring Fishery Commission Chair William Orphan told Middleboro selectmen in early April that the main question was not whether to re-open the runs, but when. The commission would need time to develop new permit regulations, plan for some reasonable hours of fishing time, and determine what manpower would be needed to supervise operations, he indicated.

Lakeville's Board of Selectmen had already endorsed the idea of reopening the fishery at a late March meeting with commissioners. The board voted to send a letter officially supporting the move, with a note that any permit fees developed by the commission should cover the cost of operating the runs, and supervising fishing by town wardens.

Middleboro and Lakeville are among the first communities in the state to get federal approval for a reopened fishery, Orphan told selectmen in April. "We don't want to be the only one to open, but we don't want to wait 20 years to reopen either," he told the board.

Middleboro Selectman John Knowlton was supportive of the re-opening of the run at that April meeting, saying, "I would like to see this happen." He recommended that any new regulations keep the permits affordable for residents, and suggested that a lottery for a limited number of annual permits be considered.

Commission member David Cavanaugh, also an appointed herring warden, noted that state law requires herring runs also be open to non-residents. In the past, the town issued about 700 permits to residents, and about 200 permits to non-residents; typically, the annual catch was perhaps 30,000 fish taken.

"Although we have received permission to reopen, the Middleborough-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission is in the process of seeking input from the public. We expect to send a questionnaire in the G&E bills (or other appropriate distribution) and may hold public hearings at some point this year," Cavanaugh reported this week.

"The Commission has not taken a formal vote on our stance about reopening as yet," he stressed. Input from both Middleborough and Lakeville selectmen has been supportive, with both boards generally in favor of reopening, but the commission will ultimately decide on the details and a timetable, he indicated.

When the time comes, the commission will develop permits at a "reasonable cost, but enough to cover costs of the operation" of the runs, Cavanaugh said in an e-mail.

RESIDENT PLEADS CAUTION

Resident Louise Dery-Wells, who worked as a fisheries biologist years ago, became interested in the reopening debate when she read about the recent meeting between selectmen and the herring commission. After researching contemporary literature on herring research, she penned a letter to the editor of The Middleboro Gazette urging town officials against making a hasty decision on the issue.

Although Middleboro and Lakeville have "a relatively healthy river system" that is helping the herring rebound from their recent decline, the health of the fishery is "a complicated issue" involving many factors, she said. Some data suggests "continued pressure on river herring" and indicate that the population is still too "fragile" to sustain annual harvests, her letter indicated.

There should be more research on the local fishery, and some work done on the fish runs at Oliver Mill Park, before the fishery is re-opened, she suggested. "I think it's premature to restore a herring fishery for recreational use," Dery-Wells said this week.

There are issues with clogged waterways at the park, and no funds appropriated for repairs, she noted. "We need to get a funding source to repair the fishways at Oliver Mill Park," she added, suggesting a restoration fund named in honor of longtime Gazette editor Jane Lopes be established for that purpose.

There is also little real data on the numbers of juvenile herring spawning, the food available to both river and pond-spawned juveniles, or firm numbers on the adult fish migrating each year, she suggests. Detailed studies with actual counts, and considerations of fluctuations in rainfall and water levels, should be done to support future decisions, and a good system for monitoring real fish numbers put in place "before you start to resume recreational fishing," Dery-Wells said.

A LITTLE HISTORY

The author of the 2014 book, Nemasket River Herring, Middleborough Historical Commission member Michael Maddigan probably knows more about the history of the herring runs in town than anyone still living. His online blog, Recollecting Nemasket, provides a wealth of information about the fishery through the years.

One blog notes that laws governing the taking of herring have been in place since 1749, when King George I signed a set of regulations concerning the important colonial fishery. The first regulations established specific fishing sites, and granted town officials some limited authority to auction off fishing rights.

A 1765 revision of the laws set a 40 shilling fine for illegal taking of fish by adults, or fishing at unpermitted locations. Children caught breaking the law could be whipped (up to five lashes) or locked in the public stocks for two to 24 hours.

Later, selectmen were given the right to limit catches to certain days of the week, at specific locations. Bids began to be sought for commercial fishing rights, and the annual auction of licenses became quite the lively affair, historians report.

The traditional processing method was to gut and scale the fresh herring, then pickle them in brine for a while. Rinsed and dried in the sun, the fish were then smoked and packed into barrels for storage or shipment. In colonial times, the dried fish were salted away or smoked and packed in sawdust, often being shipped to the West Indies sugar cane plantations, or to southern tobacco farms, to cheaply feed the slave labor.

An 1870 advertisement in The Middleboro Gazette has a local business giving notice that they had up to 20,000 smoked herring for sale, at a price of $1.25 to $2.00 per hundred. By the 1880s, the town was renting a fish house at Muttock from the Sproat family for $3.00 per year, and hiring crews to harvest and process the fish for distribution to the poor, and for resale to local merchants.

The rental agreement included town maintenance of the building. By 1897, the widow Katharine Sproat had upped the annual rent to $10.00; the contract continued until the building burned down a few years later.

In the 1900s, the herring fishery became even bigger business. By the 1940s, mechanized seine net operations had replaced the big hand nets traditionally employed to capture the migrating fish; the hauled nets were dumped into waiting trucks rather than the wooden barrels once used to collect netted fish.

Sometime in the 1950s, a Maine company buying the local fishing rights actually employed a huge suction hose to draw the fish out of the gathered nets, seeking to speed up the collection process. Too many herring were mangled by the rough handling, and the new-fangled process was soon abandoned.

The last town auction of commercial fishing licenses for the local herring run took place in 1965.

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