Feisty Herring Return with Spring

River herring swim upstream (photo: Gerry Beetham)

While we all puzzle out the complexities of social distancing, natural phenomena that happen every spring are unfolding all around, including the migration of river herring.

Since 2007, Harwich Conservation Trust (HCT) volunteers have counted migratory river herring at the headwaters of the seven mile long Herring River in Harwich. Each spring, more than 60 HCT volunteers participate in this citizen science project to gather population data on blueback and alewife herring. These species share a unique life history by living their adult lives in the ocean, and migrating to spawn in freshwater ponds and rivers throughout New England, a reproductive adaptation that fisheries biologists refer to as “anadromous.”

“The return of river herring is a sure sign of spring. For more than a dozen years, HCT volunteers have been counting migrating fish with a goal of restoring herring abundance someday. Unfortunately, the upcoming 2020 Harwich Herring Count has been cancelled, but it was the right decision to ensure we follow public health guidelines around social distancing,” said Michael Lach, HCT Executive Director.

“The HCT volunteer herring count is an important piece of the “herring puzzle” that seems to change every year.  Although we will miss this year’s HCT count, I fully envision HCT volunteer participation in 2021,” said Heinz Proft, Director of Town of Harwich Dept. of Natural Resources.

Johnson’s Flume herring ladder (photo: Janet DiMattia)

“Fortunately the Division of Marine Fisheries installed the electronic fish counter at the Johnson’s flume fish ladder off Depot Street. Fish have started to arrive, but once the weather gets a bit warmer the run should be in full swing for the months of April and May.  We experienced the largest run in the State last year.  The state moratorium on the taking and possession of river herring is also still in place,” said Proft.

The Harwich Herring Count was originally spawned into action by a steep decline of river herring state-wide due to habitat degradation and overharvesting, and the subsequent state-mandated moratorium in 2006 on the taking, possession, or sale of river herring. The recovery of river herring is very important not only for freshwater ecosystems like rivers and ponds, but also for the ocean ecosystem since herring are food a variety of other species including commercially and recreationally caught fish like bluefish and striped bass.

The Herring Count typically occurs between April 1 and June 1. How does it work? Volunteers visit the counting location at regular intervals for as little as 10 minutes per day to watch how many herring pass from the Herring River into its headwaters at Hinckley’s Pond. Thanks to the information collected by HCT volunteers, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) then estimates the relative number of fish in the herring run to better evaluate population health, and hopefully recover the fishery at some point.

HCT’s data has led to DMF and the Town Natural Resources Dept. installing an electronic fish counter at a different location on the Herring River. This fish counter recorded 1,223,211 fish passing in 2019, the biggest herring run in the state. Last year, the HCT-led volunteer Herring Count provided data which resulted in a herring run size estimate of 69,680. The difference in orders of magnitude between these numbers brings up interesting research questions about timing of migration and where the herring are spawning.

In support of the Herring Count and the overarching goal of restoring river herring abundance, HCT continues to partner with the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Town of Harwich Department of Natural Resources.

“HCT organizes volunteer citizen science projects to provide us with scientific data that support our mission of preserving priority lands that protect woods, water, wildlife and our shared quality of life,” said Tyler Maikath, HCT’s Outreach and Stewardship Coordinator. “We continue to focus our land protection efforts on watershed properties including those that protect water quality and provide habitat for river herring and other wildlife. We can’t thank our volunteers enough for their shared dedication over the years to protecting river herring. We look forward to resuming the count next year,” said Maikath.

Feisty herring (photo: Janet DiMattia)

After the stay-at-home advisory lifts, if you would like to try seeing herring swimming upstream, then visit the Town herring ladder on the West Reservoir accessed off Depot Street in West Harwich. For driving directions, please follow the directions for the West Trailhead at Bell’s Neck, which can be found by clicking here.

As always, thank you for your enduring support of HCT.