It’s the end of a long day for bone-tired fishermen returning to this Southern New England village; but for researchers waiting on the dock, the hard work is just beginning.
Buckets are pulled from the hold of each boat, overflowing with slippery, silvery fish, and well-trained eyes and hands begin to search for the telltale gray-green zebra stripes of mackerel and the slim, tubular bodies that distinguish sea herring from river herring. Local lore says that an experienced fisherman can differentiate the two in complete darkness.
But a fishing net can’t tell the difference.
That’s precisely why The Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries this has worked with The Nature Conservancy and researchers from the School for Marine Science and Technology at UMass Dartmouth this winter, to sample the catch from small-mesh bottom trawl boats, that fish for sea herring and mackerel out of Point Judith.
By studying the bycatch of river herring here at Point Judith, researchers hope to better understand the fish’s migration throughout New England, and create maps that will help fishermen avoid the large schools of alewife and blueback herring altogether.
Commercially valuable sea herring and mackerel use much of the same ocean habitat as the river herring – alewife and blueback herring – that are struggling to recover from historic lows. In fact, a proposal to protect these species under the federal Endangered Species Act is currently under consideration. The Pilgrims at Plymouth colony wrote of the incredible abundance of river herring, but centuries of dams and pollution have drastically reduced the size of the spring fish runs. Each winter, the fish gather off the Southern New England coast before beginning their famed runs up rivers all over the region.
“Alewives and blueback herring are really important to the health of our rivers,” said Alison Bowden, Director of Freshwater Science for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. “They’re the connection between land and sea that keeps our ecosystems vibrant here in coastal New England.”
Fishermen seek to avoid catching river herring, calling one another to report sightings of the migratory fish, or relying on old stories about the fish’s behavior. Fishermen can’t sell the bycatch, as river herring are protected under fisheries law, and they know that the river herring are an important food source for cod, tuna, haddock and other species of valuable fish. Recovery of river herring will help rebuild an important link in the food web that supports New England’s multi-million dollar commercial fisheries.
The partnership is working with an industry group called the Sustainable Fisheries Coalition to sample larger, mid-water trawl boats, a project funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. But small boats also play a role in this fishery, so The Nature Conservancy provided funding to expand the program and sample Point Judith’s smaller boats. The project is an unusual collaboration among academia, fishermen, state fisheries agencies and the Conservancy.
“Rhode Island fishermen recognize the importance of river herring to our environment and history. This effort is an excellent example of the fishing industry working in partnership with the environmental community toward shared goals of conservation and sustainability,” said John Torgan, Director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.
For years, fisheries managers have suspected that river herring bycatch was part of the story of the species’ decline. The majority of sea herring fishing trips contained no river herring, but a few, in areas where the migratory river herring congregate, had very high numbers. The National Marine Fisheries Service observers program reported that bycatch of river herring from the Atlantic herring fishery ranged from 171,973 pounds to as high as 1.68 million pounds between 2005 and 2007.
Hiring researchers to sample the fish at the docks allows for a more complete picture. By checking at least half of all trips’ loads for bycatch, they will build a picture of not just how many river herring are being caught, but also where the fish are at different times during the season. And tissue samples are being collected for DNA analysis that will allow researchers to track each fish back to its native river.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.