River herring are a crucial link in the coastal food chain. Herring are eaten by other fish and a variety of animals, especially during their migration to and from spawning areas. During the spring months, the adult herring migrate from the ocean through estuaries, upstream to their spawning areas in the Cape’s freshwater streams and ponds. In the ocean, herring also fill an important niche.
River herring are considered a keystone species; that is, a species whose health and well-being reflects the overall state of the coastal ecosystem and can be an indicator of watershed problems, such as man-made alteration of the natural hydrology, and water pollution.
River herring have an important role in the history and coastal heritage of Cape Cod and other coastal communities from the Mid-Atlantic region up through New England. Towns with herring runs counted on the annual spring herring migration to harvest fish for food and sale, and herring contributed to the local economy. Native Americans also harvested herring for food.
River herring populations have been declining in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastal regions for several decades, particularly from the late ‘90s on. Because of their decline, from 2005 there has been a moratorium on taking or catching any river herring. In 2011, a petition to list them as endangered was submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The decline in river herring is symptomatic of environmental problems that are impacting other fish, wildlife and whole ecosystems. Reasons for their decline include:
Climate change and the resulting changes in precipitation, seasonality and water temperature may impact future generations of herring.
Despite their importance, population estimates of river herring were few and far between. Only a few rivers in Massachusetts had electronic fish counters installed. Electronic fish counters are expensive and require maintenance. Another way of estimating the population of river herring is to estimate the size of the annual spring migration along a specific run, that is, the run size. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries or DMF developed a very easy method that volunteers can use to count herring to estimate run size.
Before 2007, there were three herring monitoring programs on Cape Cod: Marstons Mills River in Barnstable, Coonamessett River and Trunk River in Falmouth.
In 2007, APCC started working with coastal communities and agencies to encourage monitoring of herring runs to foster restoration and protection of the fish and their habitat. APCC staff work with many partners (organizations and town natural resource staff) to provide training, technical support and equipment (as budget allows). In 2011, state and federal fisheries agencies such as NOAA and DMF began working closely with coastal communities, the Mass Bays Program and with APCC to encourage monitoring. As of 2016, APCC has helped to get volunteer herring monitoring programs underway along the following herring runs:
Most of the herring runs where monitoring is done by volunteers are runs where restoration is either being planned or has been completed. For more information on our Volunteer Monitoring Program, contact Dr. Jo Ann Muramoto at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Success in fish run restoration is measured in terms of naturalizing stream flow and hydrology and making it easier for fish to migrate into and out of their spawning areas. This should translate into more fish able to spawn, and eventually increased fish populations. Volunteer monitoring has helped to demonstrate the success of completed restoration efforts along these runs:
For runs where restoration is planned, our volunteer count program is helping to determine the baseline population present before restoration.
APCC partners with many organizations, towns, agencies and individuals to promote river herring monitoring, protection and management. Their dedicated work is the reason why the Cape has the greatest number of active volunteer herring counting groups in Massachusetts. Our partners include:
Bass River Rod & Gun Club, Yarmouth Cedar Lake Herring Monitors, Falmouth Coonamessett River Herring Monitors, Falmouth Dennis Conservation Trust, Dennis Eastham Herring Monitors, Eastham Friends of Herring River, Wellfleet Harwich Conservation Trust, Harwich Mashpee Herring Monitors, Mashpee Orleans Shellfish and Waterways Advisory Committee, Orleans Red Lily Pond Project, Barnstable River Herring Warden Network Sandwich Herring Monitors, Sandwich Stony Brook Herring Monitors, Brewster
Barnstable, Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Dennis, Eastham, Falmouth, Harwich, Orleans, Mashpee, Sandwich, Wellfleet and Yarmouth.
Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, Marine Program Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Program Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries NOAA Restoration Center