A larger than ever crowd turned out to clean up the environs of Buckeye Brook in a celebration of Earth Day on Saturday, but while the numbers were encouraging it remains to be seen whether the herring run will be as strong as hoped for.
More than 150 people gathered outside the Knight of Columbus Hall on Sandy Lane Saturday morning to get their cleanup orders, don gloves and boots and carry off bags they would fill with an assortment of junk strewn along the shores of the brook. The threat of rain and a few errant drops did not dampen the enthusiasm.
"Let's get started. What are we waiting for?" demanded one woman who like others had registered and had been milling about for the parking lot for the past half hour.
"Not so fast. We'll get started," responded Steve Insana, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition who has made preservation of the state's largest naturally unimpeded herring run a top priority.
This year could be the year when biologists get a clearer picture of what's happening to the population of andromonous fish that were once so plentiful that they could be found literally splashing out of streams and brooks in their spawning ritual at this time of year. In recent years, however, fewer and fewer fish are returning and for a first time a ban has been placed on the taking of herring from streams and rivers.
Narragansett Bay Keeper for Save the Bay John Torgan, who was among the ranks of the cleanup crew, is uncertain whether its too late to save the herring. He said that since the year 2000 there has been a 95 percent decline in the annual fish runs.
"These herring are headed for the endangered species list," he predicted.
This year could shed some light on the fate of the fish, but not the reason for the precipitous decline in population.
Buckeye Brook's last strong run was recorded in 2002. As the fish take four years to mature to spawning age, this year should see those fish returning in large numbers.
So far indicators aren't good although it is still early in the season. Runs are usually strongest later in the month and extend into May.
The first fish were spotted last Monday as Torgan and Insana began instructing volunteers on how to take fish counts. In the past week, a total of seven herring or buckeyes were counted.
"We gave them a cheer," Torgan said of the fish seen swimming across a white board anchored in the streambed. The board makes it easier to see the fish and serves as a point from which to count fish either swimming up or down stream. In addition to counting fish, volunteers record the water temperature and stream level. After spawning in Warwick Pond, the herring return to Narragansett Bay. Torgan said the range for cccc herring extends from New Foundland to Florida with the greatest concentration between Cape Cod and North Carolina. But, he added, really not a lot is known about the range of the fish and even less is understood about its declining numbers.
Torgan said there are a number of theories including the over fishing of stocks by commercial boats and climatic changes that have altered the fish's ability to return to its native waters. One theory is that water temperature plays a role in the fish's ability to identify a stream and that warming trends have altered this mechanism.
"This should be the year, we're watching it [Buckeye Brook] closely," Torgan said.
There was a coming together of volunteers as Insana prepared to send them on out to the stream.
Mayor Scott Avedisian applauded the effort and recognized in particular the numbers from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. He said that while the city and the airport corporation differ on many issues by working together they could help save the brook.
Insana also acknowledged RIAC, saying he is impressed by the efforts the corporation has undertaken to capture deicing fluid [glycol] that has been a source of brook pollution. RIAC has built holding tanks and has applied for a permit to dump 5,000 gallons of glycol for processing by the Warwick wastewater treatment plant.
RIAC's discharge permit, as required by the Department of Environmental Management, remains an issue. RIAC has appealed the state's requirements and the city has joined the state in seeking to regulate the agency.
Before disbursing, volunteers also heard from Doug Harris of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Insana had suggested that members of the tribe who in pre-colonial and colonial times lived on the banks of the stream signal the start of the cleanup by beating drums.
Asked if he had brought drums, Harris said he didn't need to.
He made his point clear, saying to the assembly a "person's heart beat relates to that stream and to our mother the earth." He said that those who have a spiritual belief believe "there is a god in one form or another and in the balance of the universe." Speaking of the trees that line the stream, the fish, the animals and people, he said they are all part of that heartbeat. And he called on all to do their part in helping mother earth, as small as that contribution might seem.
"What we do here today will have a strong rippling effect," he said.