It’s pouring rain at Ryder’s Cove in Chatham, where I’m standing with Don St. Pierre, the town’s herring warden.
He tells me about the herring's journey: They swim up a little stream, go under Rt. 28, and then to Lovers Lake. It’s probably around 1/4 of a mile trek for them.
Don has been the herring warden in Chatham since the mid 1960s. Back then hey says no one was counting the fish—there were so many you could simply dip in a bucket and fill it. But in the decades since river herring populations all over New England have dropped dramatically, and in the early 2000s herring runs all over the Cape joined to get hard data on how many fish make it from the sea up our coastal rivers to reproduce in ponds upstream.
“The program is sponsored by the association for the Preservation of Cape Cod and what they do is every day you go once a day and you pick a time slot - mine was early in the morning - so you put the date down, your name, time you started, time you ended, how many fish you counted, how many fish going over the dam,” Don said. He added, “what the temperature was in the water, what the temperature was in the air, and what the weather was.”
River herring return from their time at sea and swim upstream to spawn starting in early April until early June. This year Don counted more than double the number of fish he counted last season. He doesn’t have a total number yet for the run, because it’s staffed by volunteers and the counts still have to be tallied. But the herring runs in Bourne, Harwich, and Brewster all have electronic counters supplied by the Division of Marine Fisheries, and their wardens say they’ve also seen big increases.
At the Stony Brook run in Brewster counts had been hovering between roughly 150,000 to 250,000 fish, but this year were closer to 400,000. And in Harwich numbers jumped from almost 900,000 herring in 2018 to over 1.2 million this spring.
No one knows if this is a one off or a trend. When river herring populations started dropping the state put a moratorium on the harvest and sale of the fish in 2005. A number of runs also had impediments like dams that have slowly been removed. Water quality, water levels related to rainfall, and water temperatures can also all affect whether or not fish make it upstream to reproduce and whether or not their offspring make it back out to sea. But Don St. Pierre says he thinks the shift has to do with the absence the past two years of huge boats called mid-water trawlers.
“Vessels that are probably 150 feet long that they sail side by side and they’ve got a net that’s about the size of a football field with 1-inch mesh and they catch everything. And they were seining right off the beach and you could see them very very clearly.”
These boats have been here for the past two decades, and local fishermen have been working to pass regulations that would create a coastal buffer zone so these giant boats can’t fish so close to shore— they’re actually expecting a 12-mile buffer to pass within the next six months.
What’s crazy though is that while you or I aren’t allowed to catch even a single river herring for dinner these big boats that target other species are allowed to catch river herring as bycatch. But in the meantime, while fishermen wait for an official buffer zone, stocks of the other species the trawlers target have already dropped so much and quotas have been cut so much that the mid water trawlers catch their quotas in early winter and leave our waters way before river herring return to spawn in the spring. Don says because of these quota cuts it’s been two years since he saw the mid water trawlers off of Chatham during the spawning season.
“The year that they were here we counted 74. This year I had 780,” Don said.
Those are Don’s personal counts. But they’re reflected in the bigger counts for Stillwater Pond in Chatham—volunteers recorded 1,645 fish in 2017 versus 31,582 when the trawlers weren’t around in 2018. The Association to Preserve Cape Cod expects to have full tallies for all the herring runs in our area for 2019 by mid-summer.