Centuries ago, herring in the Mystic River, which runs through Somerville, were extraordinarily abundant. But river herring runs on the Atlantic Coast have declined by 95%. Here’s what the Mystic River Watershed Association says:
In 2006, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated river herring as a species of concern. Population decline may be associated with numerous factors including by-catch, habitat loss and degradation, water pollution, poaching, access to spawning habitat, and natural predators.
Prior to renovations in 2011, the DCR Upper Mystic Lake Dam prevented river herring from reaching the Upper Mystic Lake. In the past, a volunteer-run bucket brigade hoisted the fish over the dam. Thanks to the Upper Mystic Lake Dam Rehabilitation project, a new fish ladder allows passage for river herring and the opportunity to monitor herring.
Today, I got trained to volunteer as a herring monitor. What does that mean? Basically, you sit on the dam above the fish ladder and count fish for 10 minutes. That’s it.
The ease of the volunteer work belies its importance. Tracking the herring population over time increases our understanding of the stewardship of the Mystic River and its 76 square miles of watershed. It doesn’t get the attention of the nearby Charles River, but it’s arguably just as important.
The EPA gave the Mystic River, which it calls “one of the great urban rivers of New England,” a water quality report card of D in 2007. The Mystic Rivers Watershed Association formed in 2009 to address that problem and it’s been hard at work trying to improve that score. The EPA graded parts of the Mystic B+ in 2016, though more work still needs to be done. I’ll be signing up for a few shifts as a herring monitor to do my small part.
In the meantime, if you’d like a tour of the Mystic, have a look: