Historically, the Herring River and its headwater ponds comprised one of the most significant herring spawning grounds in the state. However, owing to a precipitous decline statewide, a six-year moratorium on the taking, possession, and sale of herring is in place. Fishery experts benefit from field observations by volunteer counters or “citizen scientists” to gauge herring health and plan a comeback for this keystone species.

This spring, volunteer herring counters completed their fourth season watching for herring that swim and sprint up the Herring River into Hinckley’s Pond and beyond to spawn. Here are the Herring River count estimates for the last three years: 19,336 fish in 2009; 41,254 fish in 2010, and 10,466 fish in 2011. The 2012 data is still being processed. HCT continues to partner with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, and the Town of Harwich Department of Natural Resources to coordinate the project.

Why the low numbers last year? The spring weather was persistently cool during the 2011 run season, which may have impacted the count, or the herring decline continues unabated in the ocean or both causes compound additional impacts. Unsustainable fishing has decimated herring and land development has damaged spawning areas. The fish are resilient if habitat is protected and their life cycle is sustainably safeguarded. There is still much to be learned about estimated herring populations derived from our annual volunteer herring counts.

How does it work? Volunteers visit a specific location at regular intervals for as little as 10 minutes per day to watch how many herring pass a certain point. With the information that is collected by volunteer counters, the state documents the relative number of herring to better evaluate population health, and hopefully recover the fishery. Over time, hopefully we can restore the Herring River’s namesake species.