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    Imminent Horizons
    Friday, July 19, 2024

    Preservation groups worry about future of herring

    Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed installed white boards, as seen Sunday April 21, 2024, along the river in Old Mystic to assist in counting herring. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed installed white boards, as seen Sunday April 21, 2024, along the river in Old Mystic to assist in counting herring. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Stonington ― Maggie Favretti, first chair director of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, said Sunday she sees “at most” six or seven river herring when counting them in a narrow area of the Mystic River.

    March through May is when the fish ― which are vital to the ecosystem ― traditionally swim up that river and spawn at Whitford, Long or Lantern Hill ponds, according to the alliance.

    “We’ve seen a few during the day, but we’ve actually had the best luck during the night,” Favretti said. “We have many visits where we don’t see anything.”

    Favretti and members of several other local preservation groups and fishermen say the few sightings are due to excessive trawling in Long Island Sound that is continuing to damage the region’s river herring populations. It is becoming increasingly rare to see the natural phenomenon of the herring run, where local alewife or blueback swim upstream to spawn in calmer waters, she said.

    That’s why at a scoping meeting last week at the Hilton Mystic, Favretti and other fishing and wildlife groups voiced support for a proposed action they hope will help the populations rebound.

    The meeting was one of several held by the New England Fishery Management Council ― whose job is to manage and conserve fishery resources off the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine ― to get input on an amendment that would impose time and area closures against large commercial fishing trawlers.

    There, Favretti and other biologists asked four things of the council: that they limit trawlers takes to certain locations and to certain times in the year and that they enforce stricter catch-caps to limit quantities of fish taken.

    “The fourth thing we’re asking for is that they do it fast,” Favretti added. “That they recognize that this is a crisis and they don’t wait.”

    She said right now, the council is saying the action, known as Amendment 10, will hopefully go into effect by the end of 2026.

    “But that’s two more years of alewife runs. And every year thousands are being captured.”

    According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, trawlers can take up to 251.9 metric tons per year between two different types of trawling boats. But that cap, which is already difficult to enforce without having monitors on the trawling boats, was set when herring populations were higher, Favretti said.

    Public Affairs Officer Janice Plante of the New England Fishery Mangement Council said Monday that Atlantic herring midwater trawling is “subject to observer coverage like all other federal fisheries.

    “We’re not at 100% coverage at the moment but these vessels do carry observers for monitoring purposes, not enforcement,” she added.

    Meanwhile, members of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed count fish in Old Mystic at a park overlooking a narrow, fast-moving section of the Mystic River between the wider part of the river to the south and Hyde Pond to the north. From the bank, you can see two white boards they’ve installed at the bottom of the river to help spot the herring, which are about 10 inches long, move fast and have dark coloring on their backs.

    “For us, we’re counting in a 15-minute period. We’re ecstatic if we see six or seven.” she said, adding it’s just a speck in comparison with the 251.9 tons.

    “It’s a lot of fish,” Favretti said of the trawlers’ catch.

    Off the coast of Maine, the New England Fishery Management Council has already implemented similar rules, which Favretti and others at the meeting hope to emulate here.

    “(The council) also manages Area 1 which is the Gulf of Maine,” she said Sunday of the council’s herring management areas 1A and 1B that cover the inshore and offshore of the gulf.

    Meanwhile, Area 2 includes waters off the Rhode Island coast, the southern part of Cape Cod and southeastern Connecticut.

    “So it’s Area 2 that we’re asking to match Area 1, which already has the time and area closures,” she said. “It has the catch caps, and it has already seen a river herring rebound that has been remarkable. And has made small commercial fisheries profitable again and is returning millions of fish to the main rivers.”

    One such closure would occur during the winter, when the river herring are “staging,” meaning they’re gathering at the mouths of the rivers waiting to do their spawning runs, Favretti said. She added that the average spawning age of adult river herring has decreased in recent years.

    “They used to be seven or eight years old average, now they’re three or four. Which means they’re not surviving their ocean life,” she said.

    Importance of river herring

    “Everything in an ecosystem is related to everything else,” Favretti said Sunday. “And our well-being and economic health depends on the ecosystem.”

    “If you take out the herring, it has a rippling effect,” she said.

    According to the alliance, the fish impact “nearly every other species,” including providing food for land-based and marine mammals such as otters, raccoons, seals and whales, striped bass, tuna and bluefish, but also birds such as heron, egrets, cormorants, eagles and osprey.

    The decrease in their populations has also put smaller, more sustainable commercial fisheries in dire straits, “because it means they have to go much farther out to find the fish they’re looking for,” Favretti said.

    She said the amendment would help those small fisheries, along with the trawlers themselves who will not have to face the eventuality of running out of the fish their own businesses rely on.

    “And from the human aspect, let’s also not forget how important they are to the tribes,” Favretti said.

    At the scoping meeting, Mashantucket Pequot tribal member Michael Thomas had talked about the importance of the fish, called Seeqanamâhs, or Springfish of Hope in the Mashantucket language.

    Nakai Northup, head of education at the Pequot Museum, said in a video on the alliance’s website that “this time of year, and the herring coming back is always such an important time in indigenous communities in this region,” adding they represent hope after a long winter.

    Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct references to New England Fishery Management Council Amendment 10 and herring areas, NOAA data on council catch-caps and adds a statement from the council on catch-cap monitors aboard trawling vessels.

    d.drainville@theday.com

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