(Corrected, Jan. 3, 4 p.m.)
Millions of dollars in federal, state and private money have created a small boom in state-of-the-art, fishway construction projects on many Rhode Island rivers and streams.
Fish ladders are being put in, dams are coming down. And on the coast, in the port of Galilee in Narragansett, fishermen are working with scientists in new ways to come up with river-herring-avoidance programs.
River herring were vital to Native Americans and once supported a large commercial fishery. In 1969, East Coast landings reached 140 million pounds. In 2011, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 2 million pounds were landed by states without moratoriums – Maine in particular. Since 2006 Rhode Island (along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina) has enforced a moratorium on river-herring harvest to help replenish supply after years of over-fishing.
River herring live in the sea but, like salmon, use rivers and streams for spawning. Each spring many people come to enjoy watching the herring run. The fish, which average 10-12 inches long as adults, have become a symbol of conservation after they nearly disappeared from some local runs. In Rhode Island the major river-herring runs are: Gilbert Stuart, in Narragansett, Nonquit in Tiverton and Buckeye Brook and Gorton Pond, in Warwick.
In 2000, the R.I. Division of Fish and Wildlife counted 290,000 river herring at the Gilbert Stuart run. Last year, they counted 100,000, comparatively low but still above previous years.
“In 2005, the population crashed,” said R.I. Division of Fish and Wildlife freshwater biologist Phillip Edwards. “They crashed in all our runs. Gilbert Stuart only passed 8,000 fish that year.”
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the interstate agency responsible for river-herring management, has listed river herring as a depleted stock across their entire range, the Carolinas to Maine. In 2011, The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to list river herring under the federal Endangered Species Act. During the inquiry that followed, NOAA determined there wasn’t enough stock data to warrant such a listing.