Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ipswich River 2009 herring count: unofficial results!

The unofficial results are in for the 2009 Ipswich River herring count (see Awaiting the Herring, March 2009). We still have to figure out the final number the amazing band of volunteer counters observed coming up the fish ladder, but the Division of Marine Fisheries trap caught 187. I know, that doesn't seem like a lot. But, it's 57 more than last year, and this is the first year since 2001 that we've seen an increase in numbers.

Historically herring numbers should be up in the millions. The reason why Ipswich was settled in the first place, by Native Americans as well as Europeans, is because of the historically prolific herring run. Off shore overfishing, poor water quality and most importantly poor water flow are all factors contributing to their demise in the river.

One of the theories to explain why the numbers finally went up this year actually has us looking back three years to 2006 to one of the worst floods Ipswich, MA saw in a hundred years. (There should be a parking lot in front of this building above).

One of my favorite graphs off the USGS Streamflow data website
(an amazing resource is you're a river-watcher) is the peak streamflow graph below. You can see from 1935 to 2006 nothing topped May 16, 2006:
Graph of annual maximum streamflow at USGS 01102000 IPSWICH RIVER NEAR IPSWICH, MA

Herring take three years to return to their native river to spawn, and in 2006 the river actually flowed all summer into fall, allowing the fry to get out, over the dam (under "normal" flow below), and into the ocean. Many previous summers saw the river run dry, so the adults could get out of their breeding ponds and over the dam after they spawned, but the young would get caught in a dry river bed and never make it out.

In 2003 the Ipswich River Watershed Association along with the Essex County Greenbelt and 12 private citizens filed a law suit against the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to curtail the mass consumption of water withdrawals from the river, sometimes up to 30 million gallons A DAY! The results were positive and Reading has turned off its wells and now purchases water from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority. This action alone seems to have allowed the river to run all year, although the IWRA still is fighting for stricter water use regulations.

So with the 4,000-plus cubic feet per second that was flowing in 2006 (believe it or not there is a dam under all that water to the right), and the fact that some key wells were shut down, herring fry were able to make it back out to sea. The result of that is we finally saw these guys returning to spawn. I am very eagerly awaiting next year's herring run to see if this trend continues. We're a far cry from the million-plus numbers of the past, but with conservation efforts and turning off our sprinklers (I don't even own own) we might one day see a herring run like the native Agawam people saw before Europeans arrived. That would truly be a sight to see.

What can you do to help?

Even if you don't live anywhere near the Ipswich River watershed, you can help native fish and wildlife in your own community every day by conserving water!

-take shorter showers

-don't water your lawn

-install rain barrels

-plant drought tolerant native plants and grasses

-join your local watershed association, find one in your area on the National Watershed Network. Or even better volunteer at your local watershed association. This was my second year volunteering as the herring count coordinator. The IRWA thanked me with the spiffy new cloth shopping bag! Perfect for meeting Reduce Footprints weekly Change the Earth Wednesday Challenge of ridding my house of plastic shopping bags!


  1. Good post.
    Very informative. I don't think of flooding playing a role, but now I see otherwise.

  2. Good information on we can do to protect our various species. No herring here but we do have salmon in the nearby Snake and Columbia rivers.

    Congrats on the new shopping bag, you just can't have too many.

  3. Matthew, I forgot to mention that the floods also opened up a ton of pond-like breeding habitat. We're 2 houses from the river, our yard was almost a pond-like breeding habitat! Hope it dries out soon so you can get on the water!

    SQ: you're lucky to still have salmon, our run ended a long long time ago. One day it would be nice to see them in the river again :)

    thanks for visiting! -kate


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