Paul H. Earnshaw: River Herring Ravaged by Atlantic Bycatch

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There is a small stream in Warwick called Buckeye Brook. Its two headwater ponds, Spring Green Pond and Warwick Pond, feed the brook's 3.5-mile-long flow through a densely populated area. Thick forested banks provide buffer to protect the water from overheating as it finds its way to Narragansett Bay.

Each year an amazing spectacle takes place, the annual river herring run. While river herring spend most of their lives at sea, they return each spring to their natal rivers to spawn. Buckeye Brook is one of thousands of streams like this up and down the East Coast.

Hundreds of years ago a unit of the Narragansett Indians called the Shawomet Tribe used the brook and Narragansett Bay for food. Some considered river herring a delicacy; others used them for bait for bigger fish like striped bass. They were so abundant that they were even used for fertilizer. The Shawomet named the brook “buck eye” meaning “small fish.”

In modern times, these fish — locally nicknamed “Buckies” — draw a lot of attention, especially from anglers, families and nature lovers who come to the stream to witness the excitement of the run each spring. Millions of fish once crowded these waters from mid-March through mid-May.

People ask me all the time: “Where have all the Buckies gone?” Over the last two decades there has been a steady decline in the number of fish entering herring runs along the Atlantic Coast, some by as much as 95 percent.

Such watershed groups as the Buckeye Brook Coalition, Save the Bay, Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and countless others have made their voices heard to federal agencies to address this worrisome decline. They have invested financial and human resources in removing dams, restoring habitat and installing and repairing fish ladders. Municipalities have upgraded stormwater controls to improve water quality. In 2005, the state closed the river-herring fishery after considerable advocacy by many groups, including recreational and commercial fishermen.

Our coalition monitors the annual river-herring run to track the progress of the fishery closure. The Direct Fish Count Program uses volunteers to observe fish entering the river. Stocks are calculated as number of fish per hour. The data collected gives the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Rhode Island Fish and Game Division the pulse of the ecosystem.

Although there have been some slight upward ticks in recent counts, the stocks have not improved substantially, and our river is far from the millions of fish we had when our run was healthy. After all of our work, it has become obvious that another source of the problem is not being addressed.

In the mid-1990s, trawlers started fishing New England waters for Atlantic (or sea) herring — an ocean-based cousin of river herring. These industrial-sized vessels tow huge, two-inch mesh nets and scoop up everything in their path. The result is that many other fish are caught as “bycatch.”

No one disputes that river herring are bycatch of the Atlantic herring fishery. In 2008, data showed that 149,432 river herring were taken as bycatch in a single tow of one ship — more than all the river herring in Rhode Island's three biggest runs last year, the Nonquit, the Pettaquamscutt and ours, which combined equaled 116,363 fish.

The New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service must change the Atlantic herring-management plan to rectify this problem. They must put a hard cap on the river-herring bycatch these vessels can take.

They should close specific areas to fishing at certain times of the year to avoid bycatch “hot spots.” And a comprehensive monitoring program with at-sea observers should be implemented.

As part of a discussion about needed management changes with the industrial sea herring fleet, a council committee meeting on Monday in Portsmouth, N.H., will address possible solutions to protect river herring.

Local watershed groups like ours are doing their part to restore habitat and count returning river herring. Federal agencies need to make sure that river herring are accurately counted as bycatch at sea. If serious changes are not made soon, there will be irreversible consequences.