Fisheries managers and conservationists are concerned about this year's sharp drop in migrating river herring at most river runs in the state. Some areas saw declines of more than 80 percent.
River herring are important fish in the marine food chain. They spend most of their life in the ocean and spawn in freshwater, marking the beginning of spring in coastal New England.
John Torgan, The Nature Conservancy’s director of ocean and coastal conservation for the Rhode Island chapter, said it’s too soon to draw any trends about what’s happening this year in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
“Understanding it in the context of multiple years is essential to managing them and protecting them and getting a full picture of what’s really happening in the ocean, and in the rivers and in the ponds where these things live,” said Torgan.
Fisheries biologist Phil Edwards with the state Department of Environmental Management agrees. He said river herring runs are known to fluctuate. Edwards said a combination of factors may be affecting this year's numbers. Those factors "could include an increase of predators, both sport fish and predator birds," said Edwards. "It could be an ocean bycatch fishery. It could be water quality.”
The Gilbert Stuart brook in North Kingstown had more than 100,000 fish last year, whereas this year volunteers tallied up only 11,000. Buckeye Brook in Warwick saw only about 15,000 river herring compared to 90,000 last year.
Fishing for river herring has been off limits for nearly 10 years due to similar sharp declines in the early 2000s. Edwards says state and other agencies will track the changes and continue to restore coastal habitats and fish passages.
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