01-17-2006, 09:36 AM
From today's Cape Cod Times:

Net effect
Pssst...wanna buy a herring?

River herring, or alewives, are a can't-miss bait when trophy striped bass return to Cape waters in early spring. That's because the bass are already salivating, chomping their way through the schools of herring that assemble for their annual trips up creeks to spawn in fresh water.

This year, sport fishermen will be scrambling for alternatives, because possession of river herring has been banned for three years by the state Division of Marine Fisheries in an effort to build up the stock.

Will it be frozen ocean herring, a different and much more abundant species? Mackerel? Artificial lures and flies, which usually come out of the tackle box a little later in the season?

Or will live herring get spirited around and sold on the sly?

Although towns like Harwich have battled poaching and overfishing for the bait trade in regulated town runs for several years now, there's anecdotal evidence that sport fishermen won't participate in a black market herring trade.

At hearings on the ban last fall, sport fishermen who attended were mostly on board with the closures.

''I was truly surprised at the lack of opposition,'' Mike Armstrong, the DMF's director of recreational and anadromous fisheries, told Catherine Cramer of On The Water magazine. ''I thought we would hear from live-liners but we didn't. People know how bad it is and are willing to make a sacrifice to help out.''

Cramer writes that ''At recent public hearings, with the exception of just two fishermen, all of the comments collected were in support of closing the runs.''

''We support the closure,'' said one angler. ''It's not our fault, but it is our problem.''

That spirit among East Coast striper fans is one of the reasons (clean-up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed being the other) the striped bass is back in numbers being compared to those before pre-European colonization. Recreational fishermen embraced size and creel limits as a matter of honor as well as biology. Year by year through the 1980s and 90s the allowed length crept up as the fish multiplied, and even then fishermen would set their personal bar higher.

But no one believes the annual striper-bait market is even a drop in the bucket in causing the marked declines at the runs the past few years.

Drought and resulting low water for the hatchlings in mid-summer is one theory. Armstrong is developing a study of whether a whole ''year class'' of fry went missing, cut off and trapped in fresh water. The clogged condition of many herring runs is another factor. The striped bass themselves may be eating too much; ditto the 6,000 harbor seals on Monomoy.

But recent inshore commercial herring fishing (for human food, fish meal and oil) may be the biggest wild card. Counts show only 1 percent of the hauls in the Gulf of Maine are river herring, but that adds up to 1.8 million pounds. And if hauls happen to catch schooling river herring before they come ashore, a whole region's fish can be decimated.

The three-year moratorium will give biologists time to narrow the cause. In the meantime, recreational fishermen like the Cape Cod Salties club will go out with saws and shovels and clean a herring run.

Every little bit helps.

(Published: January 17, 2006)