This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Looking for Something to do Friday or Saturday? Help the Herring!

THIS IS FROM TODAY'S BOSTON GLOBE. I'll be there tomorrow, though I won't bring Fionn the dog. The Mystic River's Watershed, by the way, includes all of Happy Land, and it's many little creeks, brooks, and lakes. So of course we'll help...

Helping herring make the trip home
Boston Globe

'Bucket brigade' lifts fish to Mystic spawning area

By Eric Moskowitz, Globe Staff May 22, 2008

The river herring, a sleek and silvery fish determined to return to its birthplace, has fed and fascinated New Englanders since Colonial times with its annual migration to spawn. But that spring ritual grinds to a halt each year at the dam separating the Lower and Upper Mystic lakes, where herring batter themselves against the rocks in scale-shedding agony before succumbing to exhaustion or predators.
Three years ago, Chuck Roche decided he had seen enough. He organized a "bucket brigade," and, with a few other volunteers, helped an estimated 500 fish clear the dam. More people turned out the next year, and the group gave a few thousand fish a lift. Last year, they fared even better, scooping up 19,000 herring from Lower Mystic Lake and depositing them on the other side, where 165 acres of spawning area awaited.
Roche hopes to break 20,000 during this year's brigade, to be held tomorrow and Saturday at the Medford Boat Club, which sits at the dam. The club cosponsors the event with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, which has worked to address a declining herring population. Topping last year's fish-saving record would require a large and energetic volunteer crew as well as a bit of luck when it comes to weather and the environment, which determines how and when the fish will surge to the dam.
"I would hope to at least get 10,000 or 15,000, and we'll see where we go from there," Roche said.
About 100 coastal rivers in Massachusetts serve as herring runs, and the Mystic River - which feeds Lower and Upper Mystic lakes - is one of the most significant. It is considered one of the three main runs for herring from Massachusetts Bay, along with the Charles River and the Back River in Weymouth, said Brad Chase, an aquatic biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries who has helped organize the bucket brigades.
Roche planned the original bucket brigade not just to assist the fish, but to bring attention to the aging dam, which herring fans hope will be replaced with a structure that includes a fish ladder, to help herring get to the Upper Mystic themselves. The bucket brigade has drawn volunteers from groups that promote the health of the river, like the Mystic River Watershed Association, and the event serves as a family-friendly way to engage people with the environment. More than anything, participants say, it's fun - splashing on the rocks, scooping fish with a net, hoisting them in buckets up to the dam, and gently releasing them down a jury-rigged PVC waterslide.
"It's really fun," said state Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, who represents Medford and Winchester and parts of Somerville and Woburn, all of which are in the Mystic's watershed. Last year, Jehlen took along her husband and her granddaughters, who were 5 and 2, to the brigade, and they had a terrific time, she said. "It's very hands-on, it's very outdoors, and there are a lot of people and a lot of fish."
Her grandchildren felt particularly proud about the work. "They're saving the fish, and kids like to save other creatures," said Jehlen, who has advocated replacing the dam - for the sake of safety, Mystic Lakes management, and flood control - with one that would include a ladder.
Ted Sharpe, an amateur fisherman from Arlington, enjoyed the event so much last year that he plans to return both days this week. "For anyone who likes the natural world, it's just a fascinating thing as well as a reminder of our history, to see the water just boiling with these remarkable little fish," Sharpe said.
The herring, which spends its first months in freshwater lakes and later returns to spawn, lives mostly in the sea, where it is an important food source for larger creatures like bluefish and striped bass. Herring can live several years, grow to be a foot in length, and make multiple spawning runs. Among other things, waves of herring surging upstream to mate signify the vitality of a river system.
River herring are actually two similar species, the alewife and the blueback herring. Alewives prefer to spawn when the water is about 51 degrees, from late March to mid-May, and blueback herring spawn when the water is a few degrees warmer, from late April through June.
"But when they peak is a little more difficult to predict," Chase said. "There's a lot of things that come together, so when you schedule an event like this, you hope for the best."
Although some herring stop to spawn in Lower Mystic Lake, many strive to reach the upper lake, more than 7 miles upstream from where the Mystic River empties into Boston Harbor, drawn by the water that flows over the dam and crashes onto the rocks below. That's where the fish perish, unable to make the climb. A herring ladder would offer a series of surmountable steps as well as staggered pools in which the fish could rest before reaching the top, Chase said.
The state has tried to help the herring population for decades by restricting the number of days people may harvest them from rivers. Officials don't know the overall herring population, but they count the fish at herring ladders. After observing a substantial population drop from 2004 to 2005 - caused in part by the herring's increasing popularity as bait for striped-bass fishermen - state officials enacted a full ban on taking herring from rivers for three years. The bucket brigade provides a legal way to get up close and grab them, momentarily.
During last year's event, Ian A. Bowles, the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, dropped by to announce new funding to replace the century-old dam and add a fish ladder. The state recently awarded a design contract and hopes to complete construction of the nearly $5.5 million project by the end of 2010, according to a Department of Conservation and Recreation spokeswoman.
When complete, the ladder would spell the end of the only formally organized herring bucket brigade in Massachusetts. Obviously, Roche said, "it would be worth it."
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at


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