The 12th annual Buckeye Brook Direct Fish Count will kick off this week, with opportunities for volunteers to receive training: Thursday evening from 5 to 6 and Saturday morning from 10 to 11.
Those interested in volunteering for this count are welcome to come out to the brook (parking is available at the Knights of Columbus building on Warwick Avenue), and take 10 minutes to be trained.
“We physically count fish with the help of volunteers,” said Paul Earnshaw, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition.
The Rhode Island Fish and Wildlife Division of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) supports the Coalition by providing the necessary equipment to conduct the direct fish count of herrings in the area. Tools are used to measure the water temperature, depth and time of day, while volunteers stop by for 10 minutes at a time to count the number of fish passing over a plate at the bottom of the brook.
“Volunteers may come anytime during that hour [to be trained],” said Phil Edwards of DEM’s RI Fish and Wildlife. Edwards will be at both training sessions representing DEM and providing training.
“Once they have their training, volunteers can stop by and count whenever they can,” said Earnshaw.
This week’s training will consist of signing a waiver, and taking part in one’s first, 10-minute count.
“You’ve officially done your first count at that point,” said Earnshaw.
Edwards said the training is very simple, taking only 10 minutes to learn how to conduct a count and gather water chemistry information.
After that, Earnshaw estimates that if 28 to 35 volunteers participate, each volunteer will only be asked to conduct a 10-minute count once every two weeks. A schedule will be made.
“It’s not like the demand of their time is that much,” said Earnshaw.
According to Edwards, the goal is to have at least two counts each day during the count period, one in the morning and one in the afternoon before sunset. A schedule will be made to ensure two individuals are required to conduct a count each day, but volunteers can conduct additional counts if they chose.
“A volunteer can go conduct a count whenever they can,” said Edwards, saying they have had up to eight counts in one day, which provides even more details. DEM has been working with the Buckeye Coalition since 2003, and Edwards says year after year the volunteers have been great.
Although the main purpose of the count is to track the herring population, other species of fish such as glass eels that are seen will also be noted in the study.
The counting period lasts from March until the early weeks of May. In previous years, because of unseasonable cold springs, the count was extended to late May.
“We did observe the fish were coming in a week or two later than they usually do,” said Earnshaw.
Once the counts are tallied, DEM will use the numbers from the 10-minute periods to calculate the fish per hour swimming throughout the area each day.
“We’re creating an estimate of the spawning stock count,” said Edwards.
The count is of returning adult river herring that are traveling toward Warwick and Spring Green ponds to lay their eggs. Those fish that were hatched in the area always return to spawn. “They’ve become imprinted in that water system,” said Edwards. “They’re imprinted to come back.”
Earnshaw explained that fish counts can be done electronically, but year after year the human count has been comparable to the electronic counts.
“This gives people a chance to be more involved in the process,” said Earnshaw.
Although DEM also conducts electronic counts throughout the state, Edwards explained that since they started in Buckeye Brook with a direct human count, they will continue to do so. “We’re doing the same method year after year; we’re doing the same procedure,” said Edwards. “We’re creating a time series of stock to compare over time.”
Not only does DEM compare the direct count data to previous years, but they also compare the data to river herring populations across the country in other states.
Over that past few years, the calculations have shown a large population of herring traveling through the area.
When the count first started in 2003, there was a count of roughly 35,000 fish in the area. The next year, that number dramatically dropped to 5,000.
“There’s a number of years where we were seeing practically nothing,” said Earnshaw.
But growth has occurred in recent years. In 2012, the count was 90,625 and last year was 45,244.
“You can see the contrast. There is quite a difference between these numbers,” said Earnshaw.
So what causes these numbers to be so dramatically different, year after year? According to Earnshaw, there are a number of different theories among the Coalition and DEM, including predatory loss, water clouding, changing water temperatures and offshore fisheries.
Over the past three years, the state river herring population has been consistently growing. Edwards said the statewide closure on the taking of river herring from rivers, which started in 2006, could be a cause.
“It could be a factor,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean the river herring aren’t also being removed by accident.
Earnshaw explained that when fishing boats use large nets, some up to half the size of a football field, river herrings end up in the net.
“River herrings get caught in the bottom of the nets, and end up getting disposed of,” said Earnshaw.
Earnshaw explained this data is helpful to the Fisheries Coalition to see the “heart rate of the river herring system.”
In addition to performing counts on the river herring spawning population, Edwards said DEM would also conduct counts on the juvenile population over the summer and fall, after the eggs hatch.