A late and limited herring run mirrors problem around region

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- The herring run in Buckeye Brook was late this year, and the number of fish was much lower, according to volunteers who took turns at the counting station, a culvert where the brook's main tributary passes under Warwick Avenue near Sandy Lane.

In years past, members of the Buckeye Brook Watershed Council finish counting by the end of April. When the herring didn't show by then, they gave it another month, but the results were still disappointing.

Steve Insana, vice president of the council, said yesterday that only one of 17 volunteers saw a herring the entire month of April.

Last week, Insana manned the counting station overnight and saw a three-hour run of about 600 fish per hour. He would have expected a run like that to start in late afternoon and continue until dawn the following day.

"There were runs when we had 5,000 an hour, easy," he said. In the 1970s, the fish were so abundant, "there were no set limits. You could take a bushel basket full of them."

"This is the worst year I've seen," he said, "and I haven't missed a herring run in 37 years. It's a regional problem. It's not just Buckeye Brook."

The diminished herring run will be discussed in two weeks at a meeting of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program at the University of Rhode Island. The program is thinking about hosting a regional conference on the downward trend, which is occurring in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Thomas Ardito, director of policy and communications for the estuary program, said yesterday, "Herring runs have been declining coastwide over the last few years. The runs are not in good shape at all."

The decline might be occurring because several reasons, he said: loss of habitat; years of unregulated fishing in salt water; an increase in striped bass, cormorants and other predators; and global warming.

"There's very good data that shows Narragansett Bay has warmed a couple of degrees over the last century," Ardito said, a seemingly small change that could affect the species nonetheless.

At the state Department of Environmental Management's Great Swamp field station, fisheries biologist Phil Edwards said yesterday that the depleted numbers recorded in Buckeye Brook and elsewhere this spring fit the trend.

The decline over the last three or four years "doesn't seem to be specific to any one run," he said. "We're planning on cooperating with other states to look at [commercial] fishing pressure and a possible increase in predators."

Anglers who use herring as live bait can legally net as many as 12 a day in Buckeye Brook, but the fish have been so sparse this year, fewer people tried to net them, Insana said.

At the same time, the DEM is strictly enforcing the legal limit, so that the maximum number of herring reaches spawning waters.

"DEM enforcement has been all over it this year," Insana said. "They're really cracking down."

"I don't know whether it's predator fish or [commercial fleets] just overfishing the stock. These big commercial fishermen could be out on Georges Bank netting them by the hundreds of thousands. One netful could wipe out a whole season of spawning here. It's definitely a problem."

For centuries, Buckeye Brook supported a rich annual run of alewives and blue back herring. After wintering in the ocean, the fish return to their freshwater spawning grounds in the spring, via Mill Cove on Narragansett Bay.

They swim upstream, through the brook, to spawn in Spring Green Pond and Warwick Lake.

A big run in 2002 raised hopes that the brook was rebounding after years of decline, but that was a one-year phenomenon, Insana said. The counts quickly collapsed into much smaller numbers for the next three years.

The latest count comes at a time when the DEM is requiring the state Airport Corporation to spend money to reduce levels of glycol-based aircraft deicer in the brook, which passes through airport property.

The chemicals consume oxygen in the water, and were thought to contribute to herring kills in recent years.

But with brooks and rivers all over Southern New England showing the same decline as Buckeye Brook, Insana said, the cause must be something else.

Insana's group, formed in 2002 as a loose coalition of environmental advocates, gained state status in June as one of 11 watershed councils in Rhode Island.

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program is scheduled to meet from 2 to 4 p.m. on Monday, June 6, at the Coastal Institute on URI's Bay Campus, in Narragansett.

For information on the program, free subscriptions to the Narragansett Bay Journal are available at the Web site www.nbep.org.