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Sunday, May 26, 2013

River herring numbers up in NH, although still far short of past years

MANCHESTER – A surprising uptick in the number of river herring passing the Amoskeag Fishways Learning Center in Manchester has drawn attention to a species that gets less notice than salmon but is having just as much trouble surviving in New England’s waterways.

“They were a huge part of the ecosystem here, especially in near-shore environments where everything eats them – fish, seals, gulls, ospreys,” said Matt Carpenter, fisheries biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game. “Historically, they were one of the species that ran up all the rivers all along the coast, but were wiped out by dams, some overfishing issues, ocean predation and other ocean issues, predation (in fresh water) by striped bass.” ...

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MANCHESTER – A surprising uptick in the number of river herring passing the Amoskeag Fishways Learning Center in Manchester has drawn attention to a species that gets less notice than salmon but is having just as much trouble surviving in New England’s waterways.

“They were a huge part of the ecosystem here, especially in near-shore environments where everything eats them – fish, seals, gulls, ospreys,” said Matt Carpenter, fisheries biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game. “Historically, they were one of the species that ran up all the rivers all along the coast, but were wiped out by dams, some overfishing issues, ocean predation and other ocean issues, predation (in fresh water) by striped bass.”

As of May 15, a total of 17,333 river herring were counted passing through the fish lift, a sort of elevator for fish, at Essex Dam in Lawrence, Mass., the first dam upstream on the Merrimack River. That’s almost twice the total of all last year’s run and more than 20 times the run in each of the two years before that.

The herring run this spring is already the biggest since 2000.

“They were getting close to getting listed as an endangered species last year. To see them coming back in these numbers is really fantastic,” said Rachel Brown, program naturalist with Amoskeag Fishways, an education and environmental facility at Amoskeag Dam in Manchester. “These are the best numbers that I’ve seen in years.”

The Fishways is open every day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with no entry fee. For more information, visit www.amoskeagfishways.org.

It isn’t clear what has led to the increase, but by historical standards, the Merrimack River run remains small.

From 1988-91, when adult herring were being stocked in some New Hampshire waterways, more than a quarter of a million river herring passed the Lawrence Dam each year – and even that number is probably low compared with numbers on the Merrimack River in past decades.

On the Kennebec River in Maine, for example, the removal of dams and other projects has boosted the herring run back up to 2 million a year, with a goal of bringing it up to 5 million.

Results in the state’s smaller rivers, leading from the Great Bay estuary, are also erratic. Last year’s run in the Lamprey River was the highest in recent memory, almost 80,000, and is almost as high this year, yet the run in Oyster River has crashed to barely 2,000 fish.

“What happens to them for the 10 months out in the ocean is unknown,” said Kevin Sullivan, a marine biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game. “It’s hard to figure out why some rivers are doing well and others aren’t.”

River herring are actually two species: blueback herring and alewife. Like salmon, they lay their eggs in fresh water. The juveniles go downstream to the ocean, where they grow to adulthood and live most of their lives, returning after several years to spawn upriver.

That life cycle, also shared by shad and the American eel, makes them vulnerable to pollution, fishing and predation in both seawater and freshwater and, most important, requires travel up and down the rivers of the Northeast coast.

That travel was disrupted when dams cropped up on New England’s rivers during the Industrial Revolution, and these species have teetered on the brink of extinction ever since.

Salmon, the biggest and most dramatic looking of what are known as anadromous fish, has been the subject of decades-long, multimillion-dollar efforts to
revive its presence in the Northeast, with limited success in New Hampshire.

“It still is an open question whether we can figure out how to have dams and these particular fish in the rivers,” Carpenter said.

That environmental question is complicated because hydropower from dams is by far the dominant renewable energy source in the country, far outpacing wind power and solar power.

“It is renewable, but it comes with a cost on the ecology of the river,” Carpenter said. “Even with green power, there is a price.”

Carpenter said Fish and Game and other agencies are developing a multiyear program to boost river herring. That will include some stocking in the Nashua River, which has a river ladder and lift to help them maneuver upstream and down. The state also hopes to bring in extra herring from Maine and to stock them in rivers.

“In three, four, five years from now, we could be talking about a lot of fish – that’s the goal,” he said.

But Carpenter admitted that when dealing with issues as complicated as anadromous fish, there are no guarantees.

“You do a lot of work and cross your fingers,” he said. “It might succeed, and you might see nothing.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com.

Follow Brooks on Twitter (@Telegraph_DaveB).