Harwich Celebrates The Return Of Herring

by William F. Galvin

HARWICH – As of Sunday, 371,569 herring had passed through the electronic fish counter at Johnson’s Flume in the Herring River en route to headwater ponds to spawn. The numbers are good, but not as strong as the previous year.

On Sunday, the state Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) held a River Herring Celebration at the fishway where the agency installed a counter in 2016 to register the number of alewives and bluebacks heading to spawning grounds each spring.

The town has had a moratorium on the harvesting of herring since 2005, and the state instituted a statewide ban on the taking of river herring the following year. Those steps were taken based on the dwindling number of anadromous fish heading to spawning grounds.

But in recent years the numbers have improved. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved a management plan developed by DMF and the Harwich Natural Resources Department which would allow the moratorium in Harwich to be lifted. The final decision rests with the select board. Without the necessary staff to oversee such a fishery, the board this spring agreed to hold off on lifting the ban.

Select board member Michael MacAskill, who attended the celebration on Sunday, said he anticipates that the board will vote to support lifting the moratorium next year. MacAskill said when natural resources director Heinz Proft retired a year ago, a lot of the longtime volunteers assisting the department left as well.

Brad Chase, the diadromous fisheries leader from DMF who also serves on the town’s conservation commission, said he also anticipates that the run will be open for harvest next year.

The celebration on Sunday was an opportunity for people to learn about the importance of the herring run and its value to the community. Chase said the event provides an opportunity for people to come by and talk about herring with himself and other biologists.

“As a kid I came here every Sunday with my dad,” Chase said of spring harvesting periods. “We ate herring roe every Sunday.”

Herring harvests have a long tradition in Harwich, Chase said, adding that he thought it would be great to restore those traditions.

The cold weather and drizzle on Sunday kept people away. Approximately 75 people attended the event. The weather conditions have also slowed the migration of herring. Looking at the fish counter, Chase said he does not think the 2024 spawning migration will reach the 500,000 fish registered by the counter last year. There have been some big days, Chase said. On May 14 and 15, a total of 30,000 fish passed through the flume. But on May 18 the counter registered only 1,531 fish in a 24-hour period.

The numbers today do not compare with historic fish harvests in Harwich. In 1764, 1,200 barrels — approximately 1,158,000 fish — were harvested. A report by D. L. Belding in 1921 showed exceptionally good years when between 2.9 and 3.5 million herring were harvested. Belding reported that the herring run in the Herring River generated among the highest annual revenue for towns in Massachusetts during the years of 1870 to 1900.

The moratorium has shown progress in restoring fish in the Herring River. In 2014 an estimated 1.4 million fish passed upstream to spawning grounds. The Herring River was the top run in the state in 2018, 2019 and 2020. But there was a noticeable drop to 292,000 in 2022, followed by the increase to half a million fish in 2023.

Should the select board vote to lift the moratorium next year, the management plan calls for restrictions, including a harvest target of 57,378 fish, which is 10 percent of the two-year average of fish passing through the run. It is recommended that the run be open for only five weeks, and that a limit of 600 harvest permits be issued on a four-to-one ratio of residents to non-residents.

If the river is open to harvest herring next year, Chase said DMF would be on hand to do a moderate celebration.