It was nice to see a photo last week of kayakers in the Coonamessett River. Kayaking in the river would have been impossible just a short time ago. But the restoration project recreated bends in the river that will make it deeper.
The project was not, of course, undertaken for kayakers or even for walkers, who when the vegetation grows in will have a scenic vista to enjoy. The project was undertaken for the flora and fauna that will thrive in the more-diverse ecosystem.
River herring is one species that will benefit from the project. Removal of structure of the river will allow for easier passage of the fish to their spawning beds. Perhaps more important, deeper water and streamside vegetation will protect them on their journey.
Betsy Gladfelter, who led the project, estimated that some 70,000 river herring have migrated up the river. That might seem like a lot of herring, but it is a small number compared to past migrations.
The overall number of river herring is still alarmingly low. Habitat restoration will help, but much more needs to be done. The reasons for the herring’s declining population are numerous, but over-fishing at sea is almost certainly the main culprit. Midwater trawlers work in pairs, netting entire schools of fish. They are mainly fishing for ocean herring, but river herring are taken up in their nets, too.
Fortunately, fisheries managers finally acted late last year and prohibited trawls within 12 nautical miles of the coast. That will allow river herring to migrate to their spawning ponds once they are a dozen miles from land. But they are still vulnerable outside that line.
Trawlers are not historically the only destructive force in ocean fisheries. Many years ago the shoreline was studded with fish traps or weirs, nets affixed to poles extending from the shore out into the water. It was an effective way to catch inshore fish, herring among them.
It is difficult to imagine what our rivers, the Coonamessett, Childs, Quashnet and Mashpee, looked like in late April and May back then. The numbers of herring in them would be astonishing to us today.
But step by step we can perhaps restore their populations to some degree. Restoration of the Coonamessett River is one such step. Perhaps before too long, 70,000 herring will seem like a very small number.