One of the first harbingers of spring on the waterfront is the arrival of herring in the Island's coastal ponds. They will start showing up in the weeks ahead, but there is rising concern across the state and on the Vineyard that their numbers are significantly down.
At a February meeting of the Tisbury selectmen, two selectmen raised the possibility of placing a moratorium on the Richard F. Madeiras herring run at the head of Lagoon Pond. The run is managed by selectmen in both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.
River herring, also called alewives, are anadromous, meaning they travel from salt water to fresh water to spawn. Every spring they return to the spot where they were hatched to lay eggs before returning to the ocean. The annual pilgrimage of fish is an important part of this region's cultural heritage. The Vineyard's other working herring run is in Aquinnah. In addition, the town of Tisbury is establishing a new run at the head of Lake Tashmoo and Edgartown is working to revitalize the herring run at Mattakesett.
Tisbury shellfish constable Derek Cimeno told selectmen Feb. 22 that his advisory committee had considered the idea of imposing a moratorium on the Lagoon Pond run, but thought it would not be well received. He said he is concerned about overfishing.
In the end the Tisbury selectmen approved the recommendation for a bag limit of 12 fish per day - the same as last year - but also said they would support a moratorium if the committee made the decision. The Oak Bluffs selectmen still must approve the management plan.
The move to guard against overfishing in Vineyard Haven comes as similar concerns are raised at the state level.
Later this month the state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) will hold public hearings about establishing a commercial moratorium on the sale of river herring, with a daily bag limit of 12 fish per day.
Mike Armstrong, who oversees the anadromous fish in Massachusetts for the state, confirmed this week that herring numbers are declining and renewed efforts are being made to find out why. There are 175 fish ladders in Massachusetts - more than in any other state in the country.
"We should be seeing a rebound, but we keep seeing it go down," Mr. Armstrong said.
The Vineyard has a rich history when it comes to herring.
In the late 1800s, Edgartown had one of the most productive runs in the state and produced tons of herring each spring. A small village of temporary shacks were built near Atlantic Drive each spring. With the help of locals, the Mattakesett Creek Company shipped herring off-Island by the barrel. The herring was salted, pickled and herring roe was a popular delicacy.
Today, most of the herring harvested is used for bait by lobster fishermen and commercial striped bass fishermen. Striped bass often will follow schools of herring all the way into coastal ponds. There is some speculation that the rising number of striped bass in these waters might be having an impact.
Mr. Armstrong said in fact there is probably no one reason for the decline.
There is an intense sea herring fishery offshore and it is known that alewives are an unintended bycatch. The pair trawl fishery - in which two boats fish using a common net - south of New England may also be having an impact.
"There is no question this could be happening but we can't document it. We just don't have enough data to say that yet," Mr. Armstrong said.
Poaching is another concern at all of the herring runs, he said.
Greg Skomal - a Vineyard biologist with the state division of marine fisheries - echoed that concern, saying there may be predators in the Lagoon, such as freshwater bass and native pickerel, that feed on the small fry juveniles. This spring he plans to sample in the pond with a seine net.
It takes three years for a herring to reach sexual maturity, and they live from seven to eight years. Many different species of fish feed on herring.
Under the proposed plan for Lagoon Pond, the season will open April 9 and run to June 1. There will be a 12-fish daily permit and the run will be open Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 9 a.m. and Saturdays from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
At the meeting Feb. 22 Tisbury selectmen Tristan Israel and Tom Pachico were critical of the 12-fish minimum.
Mr. Pachico said the usual takers are the people who rise earliest in the morning and go down to the run first. Once the fish are taken, there are none left for others. "It is the same three people," said Mr. Pachico.
Mr. Israel said it upsets him to see youngsters come down to the run and can't get any fish, because they've already been taken.
Brett Stearns, director of natural resources for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), oversees the operation of the Aquinnah run. Water from Squibnocket Pond runs down a creek and into Menemsha Pond.
He said this week that Brian Vanderhoop holds a three-year lease on the run and runs it in consultation with the tribe. Mr. Stearns said they have not yet met to discuss management for this year. Mr. Stearns said that they have observed a decline over the years at the run.
At least, he said, there is some positive news.
"We had a stronger early season than a late season and I did see a lot of fry leaving Squibnocket and going into Menemsha Pond. I saw a lot of fry out by the Menemsha Texaco. We know that something good happened last year," Mr. Stearns said.
Mr. Stearns said the first of the herring will arrive in the middle of this month, though the cold weather might delay their arrival.
The state DMF hearing on the management of river herring is scheduled for Monday, March 21 at the Plymouth South Middle School and Tuesday, March 22, at the Annisquam River Marine Fisheries Station in Gloucester.
As part of the hearing, the division is also considering increasing the daily commercial trip limit for summer flounder from 300 pounds upwards to as high as 500 pounds per day.