Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

A Disappointing Year for River Herring in Southern New England

River herring make their way up a fish ladder in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Greg Wells.

This post was originally featured on The Herring Alliance Blog. The Herring Alliance is a coalition of conservation groups along the Atlantic coast that works on forage fish issues.

Now that it’s the middle of May, we’re beginning to hear reports on the river herring runs around New England. Counters have been counting, cameras have been recording, and the annual spring migration of alewives up the streams has likely peaked, at least in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It was a slow start to the season, with our unseasonably cold temperatures in March, but optimism prevailed throughout April. Now we’re hearing reports that the numbers are off, even way off, in some rivers.

Bill McWha organizes a “fish lift” every spring wherevolunteers net river herring and physically carry them over a dam in Wakefield, Rhode Island. They lifted tens of thousands fewer river herring this year compared to 2014. Other runs in Rhode Island are also reporting lower river herring counts this year. Buckeye Brook, located in Warwick, is still counting for another week but expects the final statistics will be disappointing. In East Providence, the Ten Mile River started seeing river herring going upriver on April 15, but they haven’t seen any more swimming upriver since May 1. The Nemasket River in Southeastern Massachusetts, the largest herring run in the state, also had a shorter pulse of river herring this year. The fish were first seen on April 1, and then through the first week of May, but they dropped off rapidly compared to a usual pattern of a slow start in March and gradual tapering off in mid-May.

In Connecticut, the runs this year were described as “the worst in memory” by Steve Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In his weekly reporting, he shows that Bride Brook run had 218,000 alewives, but this is two thirds of what normally returns by this time of year. Other runs in Connecticut that usually have ten thousand fish or more saw only a few hundred. He describes how after the population crashes of the 1990s and early 2000s, positive trends were seen from 2010-2013 with alewives. But then in 2014 they went down, and now appear to be down even further.

What is happening to these herring runs? There are many factors at play, including natural population cycles and the impacts of rainfall and temperature on the survival success of juveniles. New England rivers are also blocked by more dams than any other region in the country, most of which are obsolete. However, over the years dams are being taken down, and habitats and water quality are improving, thanks to the work of many of our coalition partners. Yet the at-sea bycatch of river herring in the Atlantic herring and mackerel fisheries has still not been adequately addressed. Limits are now imposed on how many river herring and shad can be taken by these fisheries, and new limits will be decided this year. But the large industrial-scale fishing vessels still lack the necessary oversight. Until fisheries observers are placed on every boat or these vessels are required to retain all catch and bring it ashore for sampling, we won’t have the data to truly control the at-sea catch of river herring and shad.

It’s disappointing when so much work goes into improving the rivers and then the trends decline. Hopefully this doesn’t continue and we see an improvement next year. But in the meantime, we have problems to fix and it’s the responsibility of fisheries managers to find solutions.


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