Volunteers Count Herring,
Hoping to Help the Feisty Fish

In Ken Whiting’s basement there is a 50-year old snapshot of him as a kid, grinning and almost dwarfed by two big winter flounder caught off Nauset Beach.

There are other pictures of Whiting tacked up as well: different ages, different fish, but the same smile and the photos are surrounded by fish of different sizes and colors that he has carved himself and hung on the walls.

All the moments, like so many in Whiting’s life, connected by fish.

The fish that helps make all those memories possible is herring, and it is that small fish Whiting has spent the last 10 years paying special attention to through his work volunteering for the Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT).

Counting for a cause

“I never anticipated doing it this long,” said Whiting with a smile as he stood by the Hinckleys Pond fish ladder where the silver fish climb from the Herring River to their spawning destination.

The counting spot where Whiting spends his Sundays in the spring is tucked behind homes on a quiet cul de sac, but some of the land along the river has been protected over the years. Just north of the spot where the volunteer herring counters take their place as sentinels, the Brown family donated land to the HCT—in part because Barbara Brown loves to watch the herring come into the pond where they’ll spawn and then swim out downstream via their namesake river.

More than 60 HCT volunteers will spend this spring carefully cataloguing the number of herring they observe passing a certain point on the Herring River during pre-determined 10-minute intervals. This information is vital in helping the state estimate the relative number of river herring in order to evaluate population health and, hopefully, recover a once thriving fishery.

Tyler Maikath, HCT’s Outreach & Stewardship Coordinator, new to the Trust already understands the connection.

“I am definitely an avowed fan of our two herring species. They make an incredible journey and have persevered despite the odds against them. Anadromous fish are a real keystone species for our ecosystems, and the better we can manage their populations, the healthier our ecosystems will be,” said Maikath, who also organizes the volunteer herring counters for HCT.

Although Whiting will occasionally visit the run in the winter, the herring won’t arrive until spring, perhaps late March or early April. Their arrival usually coincides with the coming of the male red-winged blackbirds, John Hay writes in his 1959 book, The Run, his inspiring story about the determined river herring.

Inspired as a kid

Whiting’s familiarity with herring goes back just as long, to his childhood in Whitman when he and his family used to go to the run in Pembroke. “Back then we could catch herring and eat them,” Whiting remembers.

Now, because of low numbers, the state has a ban on taking the fish that sits at the base of the food chain. The herring are important forage fish for striped bass, bluefish, and other species.

The runs were bigger then, and there seemed to be more predator fish (like stripers and blues) around, too. Whiting would come down to the Cape with his aunt and uncle who lived in Eastham and fishing was one of their favorite pastimes.

They would dig their own sea worms and fish for schoolies and stripers. “Sometimes we would trade them for lobsters down at the fish pier,” in Chatham, Whiting remembered.

Skinny striped bass

The bass were chunkier, he said, which probably had a lot to do with the amount of herring around. Whiting isn’t the only one who feels that way. Both commercial and recreational fishermen have talked about fish they love to catch being thinner—a disappointment to the pysche and the palate.

“You’ll have skinny striped bass and it’s because they aren’t eating enough. It is hard to put an economic value on that, but it is real,” said Brad Chase, Diadromous Fisheries Project Leader for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

As a fisherman, Whiting has seen first-hand the value of herring and the obstacles it faces. Last summer, he went fishing with his son-in-law. The first day they were successful and caught a nice-sized tuna.

“We saw a bunch of ocean herring in its belly,” said Whiting.

They went again two days after and saw four midwater trawlers, working in pairs. Whiting and his son-in-law caught a tuna that weighed more than 20 pounds less, with no herring in its belly.

“They just cleaned up all the herring,” said Whiting of the industrial-scale boats. “It really opened my eyes.”

Although there are greater protections in place now for ocean herring—thanks to efforts by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and the Cape community—herring, both ocean and river, could use more.

“There is a lot of competition for them,” said Whiting, explaining the harvest of river herring is still prohib-ited because the numbers are so low.

He is hoping that changes. Volunteering to count herring and help decipher the health of the population is just a natural extension of respecting and valuing the ecosystem for Whiting. As a member of the Cape Cod Salties, a sport fishing club, he was involved in cleaning up herring runs in Dennis.

Ecosystem all-stars

Last year, Chase said, the Harwich Herring River run hit 800,000, which is the top in the state. And all those fish help the entire ecosystem. “They go out in Nantucket Sound and feed everything, their importance can’t be overstated,” Chase said, adding researchers in Maine had even observed cod hanging out by the mouths of rivers to ambush the tasty herring.

Chase was lucky enough to see a large school, several football fields in size, pass under his boat last year.

“It sounded like rain. It was just mesmerizing,” he said.

Still, Whiting worries. Freshwater smelt had been a part of his child-hood, and now they are much dimin-ished, much the same has happened with bay scallops and eel grass.

“We don’t want to lose herring. We have lost too much already,” Whiting said. “We can’t lose the essence of why we are here.”

Save land to protect water and herring

That is why he appreciates the work of the Harwich Conservation Trust, which preserves land in its natural state and in doing so, protects water quality as well. In fact, over the years through eight different land-saving projects, HCT has preserved nearly 55 acres with more than 5,000 feet of shoreline along both the Herring River and herring spawning ponds.

HCT has preserved over 2,000 feet of shoreline on Hinckleys Pond, the primary surface source water for the Herring River. And HCT continues to proactively pursue pondfront parcels through its Harwich Priority Ponds Project.

The Trust also gives him another reason to spend time outdoors, ostensibly counting fish, but his 10 minutes of data collection— everything from water temperature to cloud cover—often turns into much longer as he watches kingfishers and other pond dwellers.

“You get an appreciation for how fragile nature is. It’s hard to imagine these fish not being around,” Whiting said, looking out across the pond.

One can see that his appreciation for herring and HCT are linked by walking into the Trust’s headquarters—hanging on the wall is one of his carvings. The subject? River herring of course.

By Doreen Leggett

Community Journalist and Communications Officer

Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance