It’s Been A Great Year – If You’re a Herring

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Herring

A river herring makes its way up a fish ladder.  FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS More than 13,000 herring disregarded pandemic travel advisories and swam and wriggled their way to Pilgrim Lake to spawn this year.

“This is the largest run we’ve observed since I’ve been observing, 13 years,” Judy Scanlon told fellow members of the marine and fresh water quality task force July 27. She said herring warden Scott Johnson, who’s been keeping track of them even longer, agreed.

“This year, they arrived very early,” Scanlon said, “the earliest ever, March 14, I believe. They were coming through pretty consistently.” She said it was also “a really good year for eels, and last year was, too.” The run was strong right up until the end of May, when the electronic counter was pulled. “One day, it looked like a mini Stony Brook in Brewster,” said Scanlon. “The backs of the fish were out of the water. It was solid with fish.”

If you’re thinking that we’re on our way back to the 1800s when the run provided barrels of herring, curb your enthusiasm. It’s unlikely such “farming” will ever happen again; in fact, this year’s numbers may not be definitive because of technical glitches.

For the second year in a row, there were problems with the electronic fish counter at the run. It has two tubes; when a fish swims into one, it’s counted. Sounds simple, but “one tube was periodically double-counting,” Scanlon said. “Sometimes it would even send a count to the other tube. It was very frustrating.”

An engineer at the state Division of Marine Fisheries suggested a reason. “The flow velocity of Pilgrim Lake through the run is about the lowest for what the electronic counter can be set for,” said Scanlon. “Fish can come into the tube, hesitate, maybe back up, resulting in a double count. I don’t know what we can do about that.”

DMF said it could provide a video counter in exchange for the town-purchased electronic counter, which it would relocate to another town’s run that enjoys higher flow velocity. “Both Scott and I feel we might want to go with the video counter,” Scanlon said. The video feed would be monitored by volunteers.

“It’s really too bad we didn’t have visual counts to verify what was going on with the counter this year,” Scanlon said, citing the impact of the pandemic. “We did have some real die-hard volunteers like Judith Bruce, a dozen people total, (but) I don’t think there’s enough statistically to make any conclusions on what actually was passing through. We’ll get it next year.”

The total from the electronic counter was 13,000. “It doesn’t always double count,” said Scanlon. “DMF needs to figure out when it was doing it and how to adjust.” She said Johnson saw “at least 2,500 fish” in the two weeks prior to the counter going live, and “he wasn’t seeing what was going through at night. As nighthawk (and Pilgrim Lake neighborhood resident) Cecil Newcomb can tell you, they do migrate at night.”

Scanlon said the state will eventually settle on an adjusted number for this year’s run. Meanwhile, task force chair Carolyn Kennedy said the lack of rain may have affected the flow.

“I take precipitation readings every day that go to a state and a federal agency,” she said. “April was not a bad month for precipitation, but May, June, July, and, as you know, August were really dry. I think the variation of precipitation from one year to the next may have a lot to do with when the fish come in. There’s the whole issue of flow at the top of the run.”

Animals other than humans are being drawn to the run. For the first time, she said, Scanlon noticed great egrets in the vicinity. “There’s a rookery on Pilgrim Lake,” she said, “adding to the nutrient load. They’re sometimes out on the island, sometimes in the trees. I have seen a lot of them there as well as black-cap night herons. There are footprints in the sand where they’re picking off eels and herring. (And) for the first time, I saw seagulls sitting in the trees. That’s not normal.”