It is said that history repeats itself, a statement I never quite understood. However, it is becoming clearer to me as I observe the river herring run on Buckeye Brook each year. I have been coming here for over 40 years, and I find myself now pondering: Has something changed? I remember seeing so many fish it looked like you could walk across the water. Perhaps, as a child, things appear bigger than they really are. But, when I investigated what was happening, I began to understand that history might indeed be repeating itself.
River herring are like salmon. They spend most of their lives at sea, but return to their natal streams to spawn each spring. Those of us who grew up around Buckeye Brook were raised in the tradition of calling the river herring “Buckies,” the Shawomet Indian word for little fish.
River herring sustained Native Americans and supported early colonists who used the fish from the brook for food, fertilizer and bait. Each year, the herring runs ran strong. By the mid-1800s, dams were constructed to power the industrial revolution. The dams reduced access to their spawning grounds. Luckily, some smaller rivers like Buckeye Brook remained free flowing, and fisheries and other uses of the time did not affect the overall populations. Removal of these dams has been increasing passage to returning fish. So, why aren't the fish in my brook more plentiful? Something else must be at work. And this is where we find the beginnings of history repeating itself in a different, but closely related fishery.
Atlantic herring is the ocean-going cousin of river herring. They are similar looking fish but they do not spawn in fresh water and spend their lives at sea. They were plentiful off our coasts and out on Georges Bank, and a fleet of trawlers fished for them. But by the 1970s, the sea herring fishery had virtually collapsed. This prompted Congress to expel foreign vessels from within 200 miles. Through the 1980s, sea herring began to recover. Traditional purse seine fisheries continued to sustain canneries and recreational fisherman alike.
So all is good again, right?
No, not quite.
In the 1990s, a new fleet of industrial mid-water trawlers appeared to fish for the growing herring population. All we did was kick out foreign vessels to replace them with our own fleet of industrial trawlers.
And here is where problems intersect. These massive fishing vessels haul small mesh nets as big as football fields, capable of catching everything in their path.
Because river herring live most of their lives in the ocean, trawlers capture them. This unintended capture of marine life is called “bycatch,” and it is a concern of the industrialized trawl fishery for sea herring. Data show that this fleet catches enormous numbers of river herring. One tow has the potential to wipe out an entire population of river herring.
Which brings us back to Buckeye Brook.
In the start of this new century people were asking, “Where have all the Buckies gone?”
In search for an answer, hundreds of watershed and conservation groups focused on the changes they see on land. Then, it was blamed on recreational fishermen. One by one the freshwater spawning grounds closed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, North Carolina and Rhode Island. For eight years since, countless hours have been put into restoring water quality, dam removals and fish ladder restorations and collecting data on the status of many of the herring runs. River counts have become a rite of spring, but estimates show that spawning herring are in decline by 95 percent.
Herring Alliance is a coalition that is comprised of 34 regional, national and international organizations representing 1.9 million supporters. Through their efforts they are urging the bodies that regulate fisheries to reform the Atlantic herring fishery. River herring is food for other fish and marine wildlife and they share the same ocean space as Atlantic herring, especially at certain times of the year. These zones are “hot spots,” and occur prior to spawning. Protections to keep the industrial trawlers out of these areas needs to be improved so that strong spawning can create healthy generations.
Since 1994, only 4 percent of the Atlantic herring on average have been monitored, reaching a high of 20 percent in 2009. Monitoring would either prove the existence of the bycatch problem, or disprove it. What is needed is for stakeholders to join Herring Alliance, where your voices will be heard loud and clear by the New England Marine Fishery Council, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are tasks we need to take to protect river herring.
Accountability for the catch has got to be verifiable and true. This can be done by 100 percent coverage. On board observer coverage combined with vessel hold certification and third party landings certifications would allow reliable estimates. But the most important thing managers can do, given that river herring is a known bycatch in the sea herring fishery, is to put a limit on river herring that can be taken as bycatch and establish measures that ensure limits are not exceeded. A cap is the best way to provide the necessary incentive for these industrial vessels to avoid river herring. And then we can all rejoice in the return of our beloved Buckies.
The New England Fishery Management Council will meet at the end of January in Portsmouth, N.H. Visit www.herringalliance.org for more information and to join our efforts.
Buckeye Brook Coalition