It is believed that the mingling of river herring with ocean herring in the Atlantic resulted in an unintended commercial catch that, in large part, caused the massive drop in the amount of the small fish in the Mattapoisett River early in the 21st century.
Where it concerns herring, the Tri-Town has never been the same.
“We pretty much feel it was the offshore trawlers through a huge net. The river herring mingle with the ocean herring that they were trawling for. A lot of them, they don’t want them and they just dump them overboard. Then the other things are what Mother Nature throws at us,” said Art Benner, the president of Alewives Anonymous, Inc. who on October 2, sent his 2020 herring report to the Tri-Town and state officials. “We’ve had a few dry years and this is another dry year. Snipatuit (Pond), there hasn’t been a full pond at any time.”
Due to an ultra-dry 2020, parts of the Mattapoisett River look like a gravel road with a puddle here and there.
When electronic herring counts began in 1989, the annual count at the outlet of the Snipatuit Pond to the Mattapoisett River was 40,000. That number grew exponentially over the last decade of the 20th century, peaking at 130,000 in the year 2000. The sudden and spectacular drop down to crisis levels (i.e. 5,000 in 2004) led to a state-mandated ban on fishing herring in 2006.
As is his spring custom, Benner, with help from Rochester Herring Inspector (and Alewives Anonymous, Inc. Vice President) David Watling, used electronic fish counters on the Mattapoisett River at Snipatuit Pond and the Sippican River at Leonard’s Pond to establish 2020 counts.
The 2020 herring count in Mattapoisett River was 16,049, a decrease from 18,156 in 2019. Last year’s count marked the first increase since 2014 when the herring count recovered from a 2004 low of 5,000 to 55,429. Benner reported that the counting equipment functioned without errors last spring, making for ideal counting conditions.
Benner said low water in Leonard’s Pond posed a counting problem toward the end of the season. A counter was not installed last year on the Sippican River at Leonard’s Pond; this year’s Sippican River count was 813, a number that Benner suspects represents pond fish moving up and down the ladder through the counter multiple times.
The electronic counter cannot distinguish one fish from another. Benner says sometimes a wooden stick is enough to vibrate the three metal rings on the 8 inch in diameter fiberglass tube and trip the counter. “They can tell the order … reading from the rings whether it’s going up or down,” Benner said. “You might count one fish several times; that’s what those odd counts can represent sometimes.”
Pickerel, bass, and sunfish will go down the ladder into the river and come back, further skewing the count. Snipatuit Pond is populated with zooplankton and small fish.
Benner also reported a 574 herring count for 2020 at Hathaway Pond Dam, according to a counter run by Buzzards Bay Coalition.
Alewives Anonymous, Inc. aka “The Herring Helpers” came along in the mid-1980s, but in spirit at least was around a long time before that, according to Benner. “Just as a group of interested people concerned about the herring population and what they might do to improve it and extend it and that sort of thing,” is how he described his “more or less” springtime operation.
The people spend a fair amount of time removing trees and brush so the herring get a passage up from Snipatuit Pond to spawn. There is also a small run of herring on the Sippican River to Leonard’s Pond; the larger run is on the Mattapoisett.
“(The count) hasn’t been improved that much,” said Benner. “They’re food for a lot of predatory fish and there’s a lot of big fish in there. If we don’t get them out (to the ocean to mature), we’re not going to get them back (to lay eggs).”
It takes experience and skill to adjust the dikes connecting the ponds to the rivers and setting optimum water levels for the seasonal transfer of herring. A major concern with a dry summer is that, while the adults spawn and leave the pond by May, their offspring are not ready to leave until July. Many never make it out of the pond.
“I hope to let as much water out of Snipatuit Pond as I could from the middle of June … they can stay in Snipatuit a long time, but when the bogs are flooded they can get sucked up into the bogs,” said Watling. “If nature was fine (this would happen in) dribs and drabs … so (I try to) get them out as early as possible. If the little ones are in Snipatuit now and we don’t get a substantial rain … there’s a chance they’ll get stranded on a cranberry bog.
“I think we’re on the right track. I don’t think the cranberry industry has changed that much in the last 10 to 15 years – they’re more environmentally conscious.”
A herring harvest isn’t likely until there are 50,000 strong in Snipatuit Pond. “Mattapoisett was one of the better herring-population rivers in the state, but we’ve certainly slipped way back,” said Benner, comparing his counts to the nearly million spawned in the Nemasket River through Middleborough and Lakeville.
Recreational fishing has posed no threat to the tri-towns, according to Benner. “I think people are really good about the herring. It’s not like going out for trout. Back in colonial days, it was a food source, smoke them and fry them,” he said.
Benner says the days of catch herring at the herring-fishing station at River Road and Route 6 and selling their carcasses to lobstermen as bait, “that’s been over for quite a while.”
The moratorium against taking or possession of herring from many Massachusetts rivers including both the Mattapoisett and Sippican remains in effect. Since the 2014 recovery from 6,000 to 55,000, there have been declined counts, and Benner said improvements in counts must continue in order to sustain a fishery plan and justify an opening. In order to resume fishing, a sustainable harvest plan would have to be achieved, filed with and approved by the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
While there is flow in Rochester, water levels are lower than Watling has ever seen, and his father was the town’s herring inspector before he was. Given the conditions, reopening the fishing of herring seems a long way off.
“That’s the goal of Alewives Anonymous, but it’s my opinion and I told the state … they’ve asked the commercial fishermen to stay offshore during the spring migration,” said Watling.
Offshore to most people means beyond Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, outside the 6-mile limit. But the depth of the water also factors.
In Mattapoisett along Route 6, some 16,000 fish spread out over a period from mid-March to mid-May. “You’ve got to be there at the right time to see a bunch of them,” said Benner. “Clearing brush, we didn’t see any of them. Memorial Day Boat Race organizers help out on this.
“We’re in it for a long run, I hope. You don’t need many adults to get a million eggs.”
By Mick Colageo