Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Have All the Herring Gone?

I have been checking Principio Creek daily for the last two months, anxiously waiting for the return of the herring. The DNR sign nailed to a tree was not a good omen, but I thought it was more preventive in nature. Possession of any herring, unless you had a receipt to prove you bought it last year, was now illegal due to a 93% reduction in herring numbers on the Atlantic coast over last 25 years. But I really didn’t think that 93% reduction applied to this creek. The run last year was incredibly abundant, so abundant that it was easy to think it would continue.

Herring are migratory. They spend the majority of their lives at sea, and migrate to our fresh water rivers and streams to spawn each spring. This time last year I shared the base of Principio falls with three fishermen who were trying to snag the migrants for bait. I watched thousands of fish push up through the falls. I watched thousands of fish lay and fertilize eggs. I left Principio confident in the future of this herring run and looked forward to the opportunity to witness one of the most amazing events in our rivers and streams every spring. But the fish never came back and every day I checked, I came away wondering if I was early or they were late, but I figured they would be back. They had to. There were so many of them last year. It was a seasonal rite of passage I was confident I could hand down to my kids, maybe even my grandkids. It was something in nature I could count on returning. Until now. The first week of May arrived without sighting any herring and I had to accept that they weren’t coming back this year.

It seemed like such a limitless resource, and while I am not a proponent of overfishing, I didn’t think the fishermen last year were doing any harm. There were just so many fish in the creek, how could the couple dozen they removed have an affect? Nature will make more. Maybe that’s why we are where we are, because of that very flawed thinking that our resources are so abundant we can never deplete them.

The lack of a run in the Principio this year is concerning, especially combined with a 93% reduction in mid Atlantic seaboard herring. Maybe the Prinicipio run is gone for good and all that remains are the pictures I took last year, of the last run. Or maybe the warm and dry weather we had this spring reduced all the runs. Sure seems like the Deer Creek shad run fizzled after a robust start. I hope it was the weather and I will be back looking for the migrants again in April, looking for that seasonal rite of passage I can pass down to my kids.

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