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Herring Slow To Rebound

Posted in: Bourne News, Front Page Stories
May 16, 2008 - 10:35:49 AM
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     Although the herring population at the Bournedale Herring Run seems to be bouncing back ever so slightly, Department of Natural Resources Director Timothy W. Mullen doesn’t foresee the statewide moratorium on herring fishing being lifted any time soon.
     The moratorium was put in place in 2005 by the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries in response to steadily dwindling herring populations at runs across the state.
     From 2004 to 2005 the herring population at the Bournedale Herring Run fell from 110,000 to 90,000. In 2006, the population dropped again, to 75,000.
     The population crept upward in 2007 to 78,000; however, Mr. Mullen doesn’t see that small jump as a strong impetus for the state to put an end to the three-year moratorium, which expires in January 2009.
     He said that the herring population at the Bournedale Herring Run is still a long way off from past healthy years, in which a million alewife and blueback herring would pass through the run to spawn.
     According to Mr. Mullen, the Bournedale Herring Run isn’t the only run in the commonwealth where the herring population has been slow to return.
     At the Nemasket Herring Run in Middleborough, the herring population is down from 3 million to about 300,000.
     Phil Brady, aquatic biologist at the Department of Marine Fisheries’ South Shore office, said the decision on whether the moratorium will be lifted will be made after a tally is taken of this summer’s herring population.
     He added that in the late summer his department administrators and field workers will hold discussions with natural resource managers from across the state to gauge the success of the herring fishing ban.
     According to both Mr. Mullen and Mr. Brady, there are various reasons for the decline in population. They include cold temperatures and high flow that block access to streams and fish ways, drought conditions within the past decade that knocked out older generations of herring, a lack of access to spawning grounds, natural predation, and increased legal and illegal harvesting by offshore fisheries.
     Mr. Mullen said that as the nets used by offshore fisheries have become more advanced, their pulls of herring have greatly increased.
     He recently wrote a letter to Paul Howard, executive director of the New England Fisheries Management Council, urging him to step up surveillance of offshore fishing boats that have pulled in large herring harvests with advanced nets.
     “There is widespread acknowledgment that insufficient observer coverage, a flawed protocol which permits the vessels to dump catch at sea before observers have sampled it, and a lack of shoreside monitoring have created a situation in which the total catch and by-catch of a fleet are unknown,” he wrote. “The flaws in the monitoring program mean that the significant river herring by-catch which is regularly observed cannot be reliably extrapolated across the whole fishery, and as such we really do not know the impacts of this fleet on our river herring resource.”
     Mr. Mullen said the decreased herring population at the Bournedale Herring Run has not yet had a severe impact on the local ecosystem. Herring predators, such as cormorant, seals, and striped bass, have been able to adapt their diets and still show strong numbers.
     However, local fishermen have been less eager to move away from herring. Mr. Mullen said he has noticed a marked decrease in canal fishermen, mostly due to the lack of their favorite bait. Striped bass will still bite on mackerel, pogies, and artificial lures, he said, but most fishermen are reluctant to use them.
     Cape fishermen have been understanding of the moratorium, though, Mr. Mullen said.
     In fact, DNR officer Michael J. Gratis said that many fishermen are willing to let the ban run a little longer if it will ensure a healthy future for herring.
     “They don’t want to rush it just for the sake of plucking a few fish,” he said. It is hoped their patience will hold, as it may be a while before the herring are running strong again.
     “It took a long time for the herring population to get where it is,” said Mr. Gratis, who remembers days when the fish would literally fly out of the herring run. “It’s going to take a long time for it to get back.”