By Judy Scanlon
A quote from one mother who brings her children to count herring when asked” why do they count herring?”
“I do subscribe to the notion that if you learn about something in the natural world, you appreciate and love it, and then that leads to you fighting for it. The Cape is magical but a lot of times it’s hard to enjoy the magic because you are running from commitment to commitment, so by signing up (to count herring) we basically carved out time to hang out with Mother Nature, and see what she is up to. Granted we shouldn’t have to schedule time to just enjoy sitting by a stream watching fish go by, but we (or at least I) seem to schedule a lot of stuff that isn’t nearly as important. And both my kids loved going and filling out the form. My kids are the future Stewards of the Cape, and I want to give them every tool I can so they can save it. Volunteering gives them love, a sense of “responsibility and knowledge.”
The annual arrival of the river herring signifies the official arrival of spring. It draws many of us to the run, to witness the upward migration of these beloved fish, who after surviving several years at sea, return to spawn in the same exact lake or pond where they were born.
River herring (alewife and blueback) are referred to as a “keystone species” as they are a vital part of the marine, estuarine, and freshwater food webs. Many predatory fish, birds, turtles and terrestrial, aquatic and marine mammals depend on them as a major food source. However, over the past several centuries, populations of river herring have undergone a significant decline. Construction of dams and culverts, industrial-scale fishing off our coasts, and declining water quality in estuaries and freshwater spawning areas, threaten their continued survival. Massachusetts placed a moratorium on the harvest of river herring in 2006, but they could still disappear from our waters.
So “Why do we count herring?” Because fisheries scientists rely on this data when assessing the present numbers of river herring returning to our different runs. It helps them identify changes over time, and with future resource management and restoration decisions.
In 2007, only four herring count programs existed on Cape Cod. In 2008, with technical assistance provided by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MA DMF), and the Association to Protect Cape Cod, 70 Orleans volunteers began officially counting herring (Alewife) at its Pilgrim Lake run. We have now completed our 10th year. Between April 1st and May 31st counts are conducted nine times/day, seven days a week, between 7 AM and 7 PM. Roughly 440-480 individual counts have been done each year, for 10 consecutive years.
The dedication shown by our volunteer herring counters has been outstanding. The common thread that binds us together is our interest and desire to experience the annual return of the herring, and need to participate in an effort that may help the recovery of this species.
Final herring count numbers for all the different Cape runs for 2017 are not available yet, but in 2016, the Orleans run was one of the few where numbers increased. Based on our 2017 herring count total of 2885 herring, the MA DMF calculated the estimated overall run size this year was 27,551 herring (+/- 8,016). The estimated run size in 2013 based on a total count of 313 fish, was only 3,001 herring (+/- 1,175). This increase over the past several years is very encouraging.
After 10 years, some herring count volunteers would like to “retire”! Therefore, the Orleans Shellfish and Waterways Improvement Advisory Committee recently requested funding to purchase an electronic fish counter. If approved, it will reduce (but not eliminate) the number of volunteers needed, and also allow us to document how many herring migrate up the run at night, and allow continued collection of this important count data.
Maybe, in a world that is often anything but predictable, it’s the need to witness something constant and, like clockwork, the herring can be seen returning every year. Or, maybe for many of us, it is somehow strangely comforting. Regardless of the reasons, as long as the river herring continue to return to our run, so shall we.
– Judy Scanlon is a marine biologist living in Orleans since 1960. Judy actively participates in activities supporting various town environmental efforts. She is the volunteer technical coordinator for the Orleans Volunteer Herring Count Program, and began her interest in herring and our local herring runs as a child. Water Water Everywhere is a monthly contribution of the Orleans Pond Coalition. Please visit www.orleandpondscoalition.org for more information.