by Mary Griffin
Orleans Pond Coalition
The return of river herring to their native spawning grounds in freshwater rivers and ponds from the sea is a welcome sign of spring. Orleans Natural Resource Manager Nate Sears says, “Some may rely on the groundhog, but Cape Codders trust only the herring.” According to Sears, “The herring run at Pilgrim Lake, like many other runs in the region, is so special because it is only possible with the support of the community. The journey of these fish and the promise of their return seems to inspire and reassure folks that it will be soon time to open our windows and stretch our winter bones. Their arrival surely symbolizes a renewal life and a guarantee of spring’s return.”
Judy Scanlon chairs the Orleans Marine and Fresh Water Quality Committee and provides technical coordination for the Pilgrim Lake herring run. She says it takes approximately 50 volunteers to conduct the herring count. The herring just arrived this year on March 20 so the visual count is underway. According to Scanlon, in 2021 the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries estimated the Pilgrim Lake run size was around 16,000 herring (plus or minus 6,463), from calculations based upon the visual count. Volunteers conducted 419 1O-minute counts completed over 67 total days.
Scott Johnson, Keeper of the Run at Pilgrim Lake, works tirelessly to adjust the boards to help maintain adequate and also leads a volunteer debris cleanup of the run to improve fish passage. In addition, the town is working to improve water quality in Pilgrim Lake negatively impacted by nutrients from septic systems. Good water quality is necessary for spawning success. Other challenges for the herring include increased water temperatures and low water flow exacerbated by climate change. Currently, there is a moratorium on direct fishing for river herring, but bycatch at sea is another challenge.
Long-time herring run volunteer Suzanne “Phil” Phillips says that she has volunteered to count herring at the Pilgrim Lake run since nearly the beginning of the effort over a decade ago. She enjoys being a citizen scientist and how participating in the count “connects you to nature.”
Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries Senior Fisheries Biologist Brad Chase says that the herring run at Pilgrim Lake “is an excellent example of town-state collaboration.” The state and the town have worked together for years on the Pilgrim Lake run to improve fish passage. According to Chase, the Pilgrim Lake run provides important data to the state as one of only two herring runs in Pleasant Bay. This year volunteer visual count efforts will be supplemented by a motion-activated video system added with assistance from the division of marine fisheries powered by electricity recently extended to the site by the town.
Richard Levy, volunteer coordinator for the Pilgrim Lake herring count, says that more volunteers are needed and training will be provided. Interested volunteers should send their contact information soon to email@example.com.
Published in the Cape Cod Chronicle
March 31, 2022