Herring Return to Buckeye Brook

Warwick Beacon Online
Written by HOWELL, JOHN
Thu, Apr 27 06

They're back.

"It's a good sight to see," said Steve Insana as he sat on the Warwick Avenue guardrail overlooking Buckeye Brook yesterday afternoon.

For the first time in four years Insana, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition and Watershed Council, is seeing the semblance of a herring run in the brook, an outflow of Warwick Pond. Insana is not prepared to call it a run yet, as schools of alewives are holding in sections of the brook, rather than swimming upstream.

But there are fish and that is more than what could be said in recent years.

Similar reports are coming from other areas of the state.

John Torgan, baykeeper for Save the Bay, said more fish are being seen this year than for the last several years combined. He reported strong fish counts at Gilbert Stuart, the state's strongest run, and in other locations.

Yesterday afternoon just downstream from the Warwick Avenue culvert a school of 50 to 75 fish circled. They were six to eight inches and length and according to Insana looked to be mature adults. Two showed signs of their trip to return to the waters where they were born and to perpetuate the cycle.

"They've been beat up, but they made it back," Insana said of the fish that showed bare flesh where larger fish or perhaps a bird had attempted to make a meal of them.

This year has been viewed as critical in understanding the dramatic decline in the run of alewives and blueback herring. Scientists and naturalists have been seeking answers to why the once-plentiful fish - it was not uncommon that so many fish were running that they would flop out on the banks - are disappearing.

The last strong herring run in Buckeye Brook was recorded in 2002. This year is seen as pivotal as the offspring from that run would be returning as adult fish this year.

Volunteer fish counters started seeing fish earlier this month, but it wasn't until the last few days that numbers of more than a couple were spotted. According to the log, 40 fish were recorded swimming upstream yesterday morning.

Insana praised the work of volunteers. He said there is a heightened awareness of the brook, its environmental importance and how it is being impacted. He said he has received calls from residents living on Warwick Pond about splashing fish on the shorelines, an apparent indication of spawning activity.

As for why the numbers of fish have declined, Insana suggested it could be a number of things. He discounts speculation that a resurgence of striped bass could be depleting herring stocks since there was a time when both species of fish were in abundance. Insana thinks offshore fishing could be a part of the problem as well as the presence of German carp in Warwick Pond. The non-indigenous fish, he believes, is responsible for eating the roe of herring.

Concerns over the reduction of herring have prompted the state for a first time to impose a ban on the taking of herring from fresh water. Herring are a popular baitfish used for catching striped bass.

Torgan believes that the fact that the herring aren't being fished is taking pressure off the fish and is responsible for the increased numbers this year.

"We never had good numbers on how many were being removed by humans," he said.

"What we're seeing is fish. There's no consistency, but there's fish when in previous years there were zero," he said.

What Insana hopes is that the fish being seen now is a prelude to a significant run with one school after another swimming upstream. He said blueback herring traditionally run later in the season.