Saturday, April 28, 2012

Little fish with a big impact starting comeback?

New England Aquarium biologists are cautiously optimistic about a rite of Spring that could be on the rebound. River herring are returning to the Back River in Weymouth and other coastal New England waters in encouraging numbers this year!

Alewife and blueback herring are species of herring that can be found in New England waters.
(Photo credit: Jim Nagus, TN Wildlife Resources)

For centuries each spring, the diminutive river herring returned from the sea to spawn in the freshwater streams and ponds of coastal Massachusetts. Despite pollution and development, hundreds of thousands of the fish still returned to suburban South Shore communities well into the 21st century. Then throughout New England, the river herring numbers crashed. The natural spectacle of the spring migration up coastal streams suddenly became much more quiet. In 2006, the state of Massachusetts imposed a ban on harvesting the river herring from coastal waterways. The federal government is currently in the process of evaluating if river herring merit protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Aquarium biologist Scott Dowd (in green) teaches teen volunteers about fish ladders during a herring run clean up in Weymouth in 2010.

However, over the past two weeks in Weymouth, Mass., dedicated volunteers and local officials are abuzz about the number of herring that have returned to the built-up Back River. Nearly a quarter million of the fish have been counted with weeks to go in the spawning season. In 2005, there were only 80,000 during the entire spring. This positive trend has been reported in many other coastal rivers throughout New England. Biologists are cautiously optimistic.

New England Aquarium biologists hope that we might be at the beginning of an environmental success story, but they warn that that the numbers are far from their peak. They also emphasize the importance of herring ecologically to all kinds of local marine animals and the people who enjoy them. For sport fishermen chasing striped bass and bluefish, river herring are what bring these migratory fish species to New England. For commercial fishermen and restaurant diners, herring are an important food source for such popular table fish as haddock, halibut and cod. For whale watchers, river and Atlantic herring are staple foods for the Big Three whales most commonly seen locally – the acrobatic humpback, the enormously long finback and the pretty, little 30 foot minke. For beach walkers and boaters, the sight of a seal or dolphin is a lifelong memory. Healthy herring populations make those sightings possible.

Herring are the backbone of the Gulf of Maine food chain. This little fish plays a very BIG role in maintaining healthy marine wildlife populations and directly affects the ability of New Englanders to enjoy the wonders that the ocean brings to our shores.

Look for herring at the Aquarium's Schooling Exhibit. Learn more here.


  1. This article was quite beneficial. Herring are, indeed, a crucial aspect in marine biology and fill a vital role in the ecology. I pray that the numbers of Herring will continue to improve and eventually reach their peak population.

  2. If you're ever in Brewster on the Cape, there's a wonderful herring run that's worth a visit! You can get pretty close to the action and see the herring in their struggle to get up stream!


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