Herring Harvest Moratorium To Remain

by William F. Galvin

HARWICH – While there was support for opening the town’s herring run to the taking of alewives this spring, Natural Resources Director Don Yannuzzi told the select board last week that additional time is needed to put the tools together to manage the fishery.

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) put a moratorium on the taking of river herring across the state in 2005 based on dwindling numbers of the anadromous species that migrates from ocean waters to freshwater ponds to spawn. Harwich put a moratorium in place in 2004 based on declining populations that year.

Brad Chase, a senior biologist and diadromous fisheries leader with the DMF and a local conservation commission member, said there have been substantial increases in herring migrating through the Johnson’s Flume fish ladder on Herring River. In 2022 the fish counter recorded 291,000 alewives; last year that number increased to 529,000, he said.

“From the Division of Marine Fisheries standpoint, we’d like to have a harvest,” Chase said. “I think it would be good for the residents of the town of Harwich, but it has to be feasible, has to work. We’re here to support whatever the town would like to do.”

The decision is the choice of the select board, Chase said, reminding the board he and former natural resources director Heinz Proft were before the select board a year ago discussing an opening of the fishery. The Sustainable Fishery Management Plan for the Herring River took three years to develop, he said, with he and Proft working on it together. The plan was approved by the select board, DMF and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission ASMFC).

“The plan is sound. I’ve worked with all the plans on the East Coast, and this is the most conservative on the East Coast,” said Chase, who also serves on the ASMFC’s American eel technical committee. There are only three locations in the state that have the approval to lift the moratorium allowing public access to the herring fishery, according to Chase.

Select board member Michael MacAskill suggested a pilot program be established this year for a brief period to gauge the interest from the public in taking herring.

“The question in bold here is: how do we get to yes,” said MacAskill. “I don’t want to keep pushing this off year after year.”

Yannuzzi, who has been serving as natural resources director since August, said there’s not much time before the herring begin to run to develop a management plan.

“Going forward now is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Instituting a plan would require a number of volunteers to assist in managing the run. Town Administrator Joseph Powers said some volunteers who assisted during Proft’s tenure stepped aside when the former natural resources director retired in July. Yannuzzi said he has only one part-time volunteer helping the department out. He would like to have the tools within the structure of the department to put a management plan in place and emphasized the need for enforcement, questioning how many staff members and vehicles would be necessary.

“What are we going to have to do to get volunteers without throwing another employee at it?” asked MacAskill. “There are people who want to see this happen.”

MacAskill said older people he has talked with want access, whether it’s for food or fertilizer, adding there is a long tradition of using herring as bait when fishing the local beaches. He said he’d like to see a low level opening, avoiding the environmental concerns expressed by Yannuzzi.

“It would be great if Harwich was the first town on the Cape that did this. I do agree we do it right or not do it at all,” MacAskill said.

“It can’t be a yes without a how,” said Select Board member Jeffrey Handler, who was supportive of Yannuzzi’s decision to wait a year to open the herring run.

Yannuzzi said he’d like to have a discussion with the board a year from now, when all the “T’s” are crossed and “I’s” are dotted. Handler recommended having that conversation a lot earlier than “this time next year.”

“I’m disappointed we can’t make it happen,” Chase said. “I think we have the fish.” He recommended having a one-day event when residents could access herring and also suggested the town establish a herring commission to serve as an advisory group for decisions related to the herring run.

Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh said she liked the idea of having a celebration day, but added it could open up a can of worms if no system is in place for permitting. The board would continue to talk about shaping an advisory commission, she added.

Raymond Kane, Jr, a Chatham resident who is the chair of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Advisory Council, pushed for opening the run, at least on a limited basis. He said the state closed the fishery 15 years ago after telling people it would only be off limits for three years. There are industrialized fishing fleets offshore harvesting herring, Kane added.

“It’s time citizens of Massachusetts get to take river herring,” whether it’s for bass, bluefin tuna fishing or sustenance, Kane said.

The select board took no action on opening the herring run, leaving the moratorium in place for another year.