Few herring, no eels coming to spawn  

Jared Charney/File photo/An alewife makes its way up the Little River in Gloucester on its way to Lily Pond to spawn in March 2018. Fewer than 10 of the river herring have been counted this year.

It appears, at least for the time being, that Cape Ann largely has fallen off the list of favorite places to visit for river herring and American eels.

And no one really seems to know the reason why the river herring have been so sparse at the West Gloucester alewife fishway and American eels have been absent from the eel trap set up at Millbrook Pond in Rockport.

"Officially, I'd say we've spotted fewer than 10 in our fish counts of river herring making their way up to the Lily Pond," said Eric W. Hutchins, a fisheries biologist for NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Maine restoration coordinator. "Without a doubt, it's significantly down this year and there isn't much time left."

The city, in cooperation with NOAA Fisheries, organizes volunteer fish counters at the alewife fishway to document the number of river herring making their way out of the Little River, up the fishway and into the Lily Pond to spawn. Three to six weeks later, they head back to the ocean.

The counts are performed multiple times each day by the volunteers, but each session only lasts 10 minutes. And the counts only are performed during daylight, so obviously fish can be missed. Both Hutchins and city Shellfish Warden Peter Seminara said some river herring have been spotted going down the fishway that never were counted on the way up.

They began counting on April 1 — the count that day was zero — and are scheduled to complete the count on May 30.

A shutout on Opening Day wasn't terribly alarming. But in an average season, volunteers usually count about 2,000 fish over the three months. Clearly, this year will be well short of that.

So, what gives? The simple answer might be the unseasonably cold and wet spring. But Hutchins said that's a little too simple.

"There are just too many factors to say definitively," Hutchins said. "Maybe there wasn't enough out-migration last fall."

Hutchins said the schools of fish that leave the river often stay together, perhaps as long as three or four years.

"The schools have leaders," Hutchins said. "Maybe the leaders brought them to the wrong river or brought them to a whale that ate them. We just don't know. But it is disappointing."

As is the paucity of eels at Millbrook Pond in Rockport.

"We've yet to catch a single eel at the Rockport eel trap," Hutchins said.

Last year, the first eel was spotted on May 10. In 2017, it was on April 14 and June 8 in 2016. In 2015, the first eel was observed on April 20.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

Recommended for you