Counting Herring is a Cape Cod Rite of Spring

Mar 30, 2017

Credit David Constance

Ryan Mann is the Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator for the Harwich Conservation Trust. This time of year, he spends most days at a dam where the head of the Herring River meets Hinckley Pond.

“Herring are migratory fish,” Mann tells me. “They’re called anadromous fish—meaning that they live most of their lives in sea, and then they come up once a year to spawn.”

Historically, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of fish made it up the river each year to the pond. But since 2000, river herring levels up and down the eastern seaboard have dropped dramatically—as much as 90 percent.

“It used to be that this was a cultural experience: people would come to the runs in the spring and take a dip net and take those fish back to their home, and they’d have that for their food for their meal for the evening,”  Mann says.

Today, taking river herring is against the law. The Town of Harwich made it illegal in 2003, and Massachusetts followed suite with a statewide ban in 2005. Not everyone agrees on what’s causing the decline, but many people think it’s related to commercial fishing boats like offshore trawlers, which are legally allowed to catch ocean herring, but not the river species.

Mann explains, “We’re looking here at potentially two different species, Blueback herring and Alewife. The species of herring that they’re catching offshore—we hope—are all ocean herring, which do not come into rivers. They do not need this as part of their lifecycle, they’re a different species altogether.”

The trouble is that ocean and river herring mix offshore, making it difficult to regulate which species fishermen are catching. The hope is that counting programs like the one in Harwich will help scientists identify important patterns in the fish’s lifecycles and migration and eventually get river herring populations on the rebound.

“As part of protocol that we’ve set up,” Mann says, “we count from April 1 through May 31. They say how many fish they counted, the water temperature, and the air temperature. We try to count what the water level is, and then the weather conditions­—when it’s more overcast we might see more fish, or we might not. We don’t really know everything about this.”

There are similar counting programs set up in towns across the Cape—from Wellfleet to Falmouth—and runs in places like Buzzards Bay even have electronic fish counters. Whatever the system, Ryan Mann hopes the work will eventually lead to a solution. After all, we’ve already lost one anadramous fish—the Atlantic Salmon, another important local food source—but for river herring, it’s not too late.

Find out more at Elspeth’s blog, Diary of a Locavore.

And here’s a guide for how to identify the different species of herring.

The piece originally aired in 2011.