Herring on the run from inscrutable foe - Just as mysterious as the return each spring of river herring to their birth places, is their precipitous drop in numbers throughout the Northeast.

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Providence Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- Redwing blackbirds teeter on the reeds, their two-note whistle clashing with the whoosh of Warwick Avenue traffic. Steve Insana and Paul Earnshaw stand behind the guardrail, oblivious to all the racket. They are searching for spring in the shallow stream under the road.

An odd ripple grabs their attention; a slight bulge of dark water that moves steadily upstream in defiance of the current.

"We got some coming," Insana announces. "Trust me."

The men wait in the breezy cold of falling light. If they weren't afraid of spooking what's coming, both men, in their 40s, could almost jump here across Buckeye Brook.

Then there they are, three 10-inch herring (or was it four?) swimming upstream and across a white board placed on the silty bottom to make their arrival more noticeable.

"Yeah, baby!" screams Earnshaw.

"We got a herring run on!" shouts Insana, who hasn't missed the annual homecoming of herring to Buckeye Brook in 37 years.

They cheer these little fish as symbols of hope.

So few alewife and blueback herring are expected to return from the sea this spring to spawn that Rhode Island fisheries officials for the first time in decades banned their taking across the state.

The emergency regulations mirror steps being taken in Massachusetts, and in Connecticut, which first imposed a ban in 2002 after its river herring populations crashed.

In Rhode Island, "We've had runs that have declined from hundreds of thousands [of fish] to a few thousand. It's unprecedented," said Mark Gibson, deputy chief of fish and wildlife for the Department of Environmental Management. "We felt it was cause for radical actions."

Scientists have noticed precipitous declines in the last five years. For example, at the headwaters of the Narrow River in North Kingstown -- the state's most popular spot for netting alewives (known locally as buckeyes) -- herring numbers dropped from 280,000 in 2000 to 8,000 last spring.

Similar declines have been seen in many of the state's 18 or so other streams where runs occur, including runs in East Providence, Barrington and Tiverton.

On Buckeye Brook, volunteer counters in 2002 tallied several thousand fish an hour passing the Warwick Avenue counting station. Last year only 1 of 17 fish counters saw a herring the entire month of April.

The story is the same throughout the Northeast. The humble herring -- staples for a wide variety of predatory fish, birds and whales, not to mention lobstermen and sports fishermen -- are mysteriously disappearing.

Connecticut first saw trouble in the mid 1990s when numerous runs virtually vanished, says Stephen Gephard, supervising fisheries biologist for Connecticut.

On the legendary Damariscotta Mills run in Maine, the numbers of returning fish dropped to a few thousand, compared with the 2 million that for millennia climbed the falls each spring, drawing fishermen and awe-struck admirers.

"We don't know the cause for sure," says Gephard. "We certainly know that since the mid-90s when the striped bass stocks recovered, there has been increased predation. And if you look at the numbers, as the bass go up, the river herring go down. But many of us feel that's an oversimplification and just may be coincidental." River herring and striped bass "have coevolved for millennia and it seems unlikely they would eat down the stocks so quickly and so drastically. There may be other causes."

River herring spend most of their lives in the ocean, traveling a journey that stretches as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as the Carolinas. The fish are known to school at times with Atlantic herring, a similar species whose numbers remain stable despite commercial fishing pressure. Scientists speculate the river herring might be getting caught in those nets.

"We do know there has been some river herring caught by Atlantic herring netters," says Gephard. "We don't know to what extent. We don't know how much this intermingling is occurring. We need to look at this. If we find out they don't co-mingle that much or the bycatch is minimal, we'll move on and look for something else."

Gibson, Rhode Island's deputy chief for fish and wildlife, says environmental changes might be playing a crucial role, putting the herring in precarious situations while out to sea.

"We know very well the ocean temperature is increasing -- probably 2 degrees centigrade higher now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Animals that are used to living in cold water are now sitting in water where they may be facing a whole assemblage of predators."

In other words, the unsuspecting herring might have ended up the surprise