Lack of herring befuddles bay watchers


The fish haven.t come back.

Since early March, Steve Insana has been checking Buckeye Brook for the return of the herring, but so far he.s only seen one fish.

It wasn.t like that three years ago. In 2002 the fish were so plentiful that they obscured the bottom of the shallow brook and even flopped out of the water onto the banks.

This year is different, not only at Buckeye Brook but at herring runs in the state and the region. That has area conservation groups, fishing organizations and state officials questioning what.s happening and suggesting, among other things, that emergency measures be implemented to close Buckeye Brook as a fishery this year.

.They should stop the fishing there,. John Torgan, a baykeeper with Save the Bay, said Tuesday. Asked why closing it would make any difference since there are no fish, Torgan said a moratorium could save what few fish are returning to spawn in Warwick Pond.

Herring, known as buckeyes, are popular baitfish for sports fishermen. Under state regulations fishermen must have licenses to catch herring and are restricted from harvesting the fish on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Dip nets are commonly used and the catch is limited to 12 fish.

Torgan is at a loss to explain the absence of a Buckeye Brook run. He said he has seen herring at Gilbert Stuart, Omega Pond in East Providence and Princess Pond in Barrington and those runs seem reasonably good. He suggests this year.s run may be delayed because of the unusually long winter.

It.s a theory also advanced by Philip Edwards, the principal fisheries biologist with the Department of Environmental Management. Edwards said runs usually start in late March, peak in April and end in May.

But Edwards doesn.t believe what.s happened here to be unique.

.There appears to be a decline all along the coast,. he said.

That report is consistent with what the Coalition for Buzzard.s Bay has found. Also, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service fish counts for the Connecticut River show a dramatic decline in herring over the past five years. In 2004 a total of 156 herring were counted, compared to 1,398 the year before and 10,606 in 2001.

Insana, the founder of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, had high hopes for this year.s run. With 2002 having had such a good run, he expected the generation of fish created by the run to be returning in huge numbers. Instead, he said, .the last three years have been horrible..

Unfortunately statistics are lacking for Buckeye Brook and annual counts are sketchy for other runs in the state. Nonetheless, those who have been watching year after year, like Insana, know what is a good run and what isn.t.

.Today is the day I throw in the towel. If we don.t get anything we don.t have a run. One fish . you can.t call it a herring run,. said Insana.

Torgan is somewhat more hopeful.

.It.s too early to say it.s a bust,. he said.

Torgan believes a number of things can be done to help restore the fishery. He suggests a public education program emphasizing the need to catch fish on their way downstream, after they have spawned, rather than on their way up. As part of the program, he says regulations should be stressed including the prohibition on night fishing and use of nets to block off a stream or brook.

As for strengthening the fishery, Torgan wants to see the return of fish to the Blackstone and Pawtuxet rivers. Fish ladders or the removal of dams, however, would be needed to bring the fish back to those two waterways.

The absence of herring also appears to explain the lack of striped bass in sections of the bay. Fishermen on Conimicut Point aren.t experiencing the activity of previous years.

.There.s nothing around this year,. said Jose Rosado as he watched over two poles on the north side of the point Tuesday evening. A Worcester resident, Rosado has come to fish at Conimicut Point for the past 10 years. Usually at this time of year he uses live bait, but he has had to resort to frozen fish and sea worms and, after three visits to the point this year, has yet to catch a fish.

Half-a-dozen fishermen along the beach repeated the same story.

That was until the rod held by a boy bent and a cluster of fisherman paused to watch the action. A silvery bass was soon flopping on the sand as a tape measure was applied to its length.

.Two inches too short,. declared the boy.s father, lifting the bass by the tail and returning it to the bay.

Rosado saw the fish as a good omen, but even if he didn.t catch something he was happy watching the sunset.

.I love this place anyway. It.s beautiful,. he said.

Torgan caught his first bass of the season, a schoolie or undersized fish, last Thursday at Watchamoket Cove in East Providence. If history is a guide, he expects the larger fish to follow as herring and shad return after spawning.

Insana believes a wider look must be taken in seeking to identify causes for declining runs.

.Maybe we.re looking at an offshore problem,. he said suggesting that the overharvesting of fish on George.s Bank could be affecting what.s happening here.