Buckeye Brook herring run was better this year but numbers are still way down       

Warwick Beacon Online

Thursday, June 21, 2007 




Although herring returned to Warwick’s Buckeye Brook this year in slightly higher numbers than last, environmental activists are still concerned and are taking action to protect the buckeyes.


Buckeye Brook was once filled with hundreds of thousands of river herring every April, swimming upstream to spawn in Warwick Pond.


“For each herring run, the number was in the 100,000’s and now its down to the 10,000’s or fewer.” says John Torgan Narragansett Baykeeper for Save the Bay.


According to Torgan, between 2000 and 2005 there was a 95 percent decline in river herring in Rhode Island waters, and in the past two years, the numbers didn’t look too much better.


Buckeye Brook is a self-sustaining brook that works as a natural filtration system and vegetative buffer for Narragansett Bay. Annually, thousands of alewives and blueback herring swim from the Atlantic, into the brook, and to Warwick Pond where they lay their eggs, or spawn. In the fall the fry make their way downstream towards Narragansett Bay. Three to four years later, those same herring swim back to their native brook and lay their eggs in the same pond that they came from, completing the cycle.


Torgan explained that hundreds of years ago, before the industrial revolution, there were almost 45 runs in Rhode Island, a number that is down to about 15.


“In general, we are seeing a dramatic decline of river herring all over Rhode Island, and in places in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Torgan said.


According to Phil Edwards, fishery biologist from the Department of Environmental Management, the Gilbert Stuart herring run, in North Kingstown went from herring numbering in the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands from the years 2000 to 2005.


“In general, all over Rhode Island we have had a steady decline,” Edwards said. “Some of the large runs have dropped substantially.”


What is the cause of this unexpected decline?


“No one is really sure of why this is happening,” said Steve Insana, President of the Buckeye Brook Coalition. “Scientists still need to do more work on it.”


“The bottom line is: we don’t know,” Torgan says.


Although there is no exact cause, there have been a few theories proposed. According to Torgan some rivers and streams have been blocked by dams and vegetative growth. Save the Bay and other organizations have taken efforts to provide for easier passage so the fish can get through, installing “fish ladders” so they can make it over these dams.


Buckeye Brook is a free flowing stream not requiring a ladder.


“It’s a free-flowing, self-sustaining river,” he said. “We are so lucky to have one like this.”


Another theory proposed that warmer winter water temperatures could affect the biological clocks of the fish. When the warm water begins to flow into the ocean, they know that it’s time to make their way to the brook to lay their eggs, however, since the waters have been warmer in the winter over the recent years, it may be confusing the fish because there is not as drastic of a change in water temperatures.


Concerns have also been placed on recreational and commercial fisherman over-fishing the herring and using them as bait.


Pollution is another aspect that may be affecting the runs.


“The state does not maintain the storm drains on Warwick Avenue,” Insana says, “so the [pollution] has no where to go but up and over the sidewalk, and down to Buckeye Brook.”


Since Buckeye Brook is next to T.F. Green Airport, glycol that is used for de-icing aircraft has found its way into the brook. The Rhode Island Airport Corporation has taken measures to recapture the chemical with an extensive system designed to separate it from runway and taxiway runoff. Those improvements didn’t come without a threat.


In April of 2003, Save the Bay gave notice to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation that they planed to sue them for polluting the waters without a permit.


They withdrew the lawsuit a few months later and came to an agreement with the RIAC.


“There have been a series of operational and technical measures that the airport is taking,” Torgan said. “There have been storm drain inserts to stop the run off when the airport is de-icing.”


He explained that there are rubber blockades placed over the drains so that the chemicals don’t get into the brook. Then mobile collection units, acting as vacuums, come in and collect all of the chemicals and recycle it for later use.


“Some of [the chemical] is still getting into the river, but it’s a lot better than it was,” said Torgan.


According to Torgan, RIAC also sponsors an Earth Day clean up annually for Buckeye Brook and does water monitoring.


He explained that they have dramatically reduced the amount of glycol over the past few years, and feels that the agreement was the best they could have done for the brook.


Although these efforts are a good start, there is still work to be done.


“These herring are the bottom of the food chain,” Insana said. “If we lose this stock, I don’t even know what’s going to happen. It’s just so saddening to me to see these number plummet.”


Insana has been coming to the brook since he was a young child, watching the herring runs every year. He says when he was young, the brook was filled with fish for almost 15 hours straight with herring swimming upstream. Now, the runs only last for about three hours, because there are such fewer numbers.


“It’s sad to just stand there and not see any fish come,” Insana says.


“I have lived in Warwick for over 40 years and have walked past Buckeye Brook countless times,” said Lorraine Potter-Cooper in a letter to the Warwick Beacon, explaining that she finally got a clear photo of the buckeyes for the first time this month. “I am sure that the buckeye of Buckeye Brook are virtually mythic to many residents of Warwick.”


“This provides proof positive of the fish we strive to protect from being polluted out of existence,” Potter-Cooper said.


“The history of this brook is incredible,” Insana said. “I just can’t sit back and let this happen to my childhood playground. Kids should be able to swim here and fish here, like I used to.”


Massachusetts and Connecticut banned the taking of herring in fresh water several years ago and Rhode Island followed suit last year.


“It was getting to a point where we almost had to put them on an endangered species list,” Torgan said. “I don’t think we are at that point anymore, but we are still very concerned.”


Concerns for the future of the fish are widespread.


Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a conference yesterday at the Maine State Pier in Portland for the newly formed Herring Alliance Members, a coalition of conservation groups. The conference was aimed at how best to regulate commercial herring fishing while improving monitoring and protection of the fish. The Herring Alliance includes the Conservation Law Foundation, Earth Justice, Greenpeace, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Oceana, and The Pew Charitable Trusts.


Insana recalled 2002 when he says the herring run was the best he’s seen in 20 years.


“I called John [Torgan] and I was like, ‘you have to get down here right now, this is incredible,’” he said.


When Torgan arrived at Buckeye Brook he saw something that he described as amazing.


“There were so many fish you could have walked across the brook on their backs,” he said. “They just went from end to end. It was incredible.”


The year later, when hopes were running high, Insana was left disappointed.


“2003 was actually the worst herring run I’ve seen in about 20 years,” he said. “So it was the best in 20 years in 2002 and the worst in 20 years in 2003. We were just like, ‘What is going on?’”


“2006 and 2007 were actually better years,” Torgan said. “We know for a fact that the numbers are getting better, so the efforts to protect them may be helping.”


“In my eyes, when you take even small steps, you see immediately that it goes a long way with the environment,” Torgan said.


He says by reducing pollution and increasing protection we will slowly see a change in the numbers.