Soon, Orphanos and seven others from the Fisheries Commission and the Rhode Island Department of Fish and Wildlife had collected about 500 fish. The truck would take the herring to the Ten Mile River, east of Providence, near the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border.
There, they hoped, the fish would spawn and revitalize a herring population that had likely dwindled largely due to human activity.
“We usually see our first herring in mid-February, and they’re usually few,” Orphanos said. “Then most come later in March and usually peak around Easter. And this year it’s been so cold that we’ve found the numbers are a lot lower than before, and they’re coming in spurts.”
The herring rushing up the river was a sign of spring for centuries, but in recent decades their population has plummeted, likely a combination of overfishing, dams blocking their spawning grounds, and pollution.
To help herring populations, local watershed groups and state fish and wildlife departments have developed a loan program: Fish from thriving rivers like the Nemasket River are transported from their home spawning grounds to waterways with troubled populations, often at a dam that has recently been removed or pollution cleaned up. There the herring gives birth to a new generation of fish and returns to the sea.
The loaned herring, officials said, was still due to return to its original home the following year. But the herring that hatched in the Ten Mile River, for example, will return there when it comes time to spawn and reignite the population.
“Herring plays such an important role – culturally and ecologically,” said Katharine Lange, policy expert at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance.
The course of the Nemasket River has contributed fish in recent years, Orphanos said, usually about 1,000 at a time to various local rivers and ponds. An estimated 700,000 herring passed through the Nemasket River in 2018 and 800,000 in 2019. Last year the number was just over 700,000, he said.
“Although the Nemasket River has a very healthy fish population, there are other tributaries that don’t have that type of population, but they historically have,” Lange said. “When these fish grow up and go out to sea and come back, they’re going to come back to these other tributaries that don’t otherwise have fishways.”
Herring spend most of their lives in the sea, but return to the rivers and waterways where they were born to spawn. Each female lays around 20,000 eggs before swimming back to the sea with the males. Some herring make multiple spawning journeys over the course of their lives, beginning at around 3 years of age and ending at around 6 years of age, from the Atlantic Ocean to the ponds and streams where they hatched.
When these waterways become clogged or inhospitable, herring populations can decline or die out altogether. And that can have far-reaching implications: herring are central to food webs, with fish, birds and mammals like otters relying on them for sustenance. They are also important to the people of Massachusetts, especially members of indigenous tribes like the Wampanoag.
Herring fishing in Massachusetts has been banned since 2006, except for enrolled members of the Wampanoag tribes, who may fish for food.
The collapse in the region’s herring population was likely due to a combination of factors, both in freshwater and out in the ocean, said Brad Chase, program manager for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries’ Diadromous Fisheries Project.
“The sea is a black box. There’s a lot we don’t know about what affects their growth and survival in the ocean,” Chase said. “And we’re all very concerned about the impact of climate change because the ocean is warming rapidly.”
When planning herring loans, Chase said, he and his colleagues look for genetically similar populations in areas where local people already count herring populations. It helps when a city has recently removed a dam or narrow culvert blocking a river or stream.
Once they arrive in their new river, Chase says, the more mature fish over 3 years old usually start spawning quickly.
“The ones that are really mature, as we call it, are probably right back into that mode where they’re ready to dance and spawn and start their courtship behavior,” Chase said. “Whereas those who aren’t very mature are probably just relaxing, getting used to a new body of water, swimming around for a while. We’re taking them from freshwater to freshwater, so we wouldn’t expect too much of a physiological response like you might get going from saltwater to freshwater.”
In the Nemasket River, a great egret flew high above the team as they finished hauling herring out of the water. The fish also support other populations, from ospreys and herons to otters and larger fish. Passersby also stopped to see what was going on, some stopped to talk to the workers.
“People care about the runs and they want to see support for the runs,” Chase said. “They want to see responsibility.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at [email protected] or at 617-929-2043.