THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Herring freed from tunnel in Weymouth

By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 13, 2010

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WEYMOUTH — Four men donned protective gear and headlamps and carried large nets as they descended a 35-foot ladder into a 10-foot-wide, waterfilled tunnel yesterday, to save tens of thousands of herring that had become stranded on their annual pilgrimage to spawn in Whitman’s Pond.

The snub-nosed, silver-colored fish had become the latest victims of recent statewide floods, during which rushing water and debris forced open a gate designed to prevent the herring, known as alewives, from entering the flood-control tunnel.

In the past week, thousands of fish followed the current into the wrong tunnel, became trapped in shallow water, and began dying, apparently from lack of oxygen.

“It’s important to save them, because herring play a vital ecological role,’’ said Scott Dowd, a member of the town’s conservation commission who works as a biologist at the New England Aquarium in Boston. “They’re like rabbits for hawks. They’re food for striped bass, blue fish, tuna, seals, even humpback whales.’’

The team spent several hours yesterday wading through the tunnel’s ankle-deep water and marching about 1,000 feet with long nets to herd the herring into the right channel.

About noon, they emerged from the darkness into gray skies, where they could see their success: Thousands of small fish swimming in schools just outside the mouth of the tunnel, where they began redirecting themselves upstream, into the current spilling from the herring run in Jackson Square.

Below the schools of herring, they could also see their failures: Hundreds of fish at the bottom, bobbing lifelessly.

“We think about 10,000 died, but at least we aren’t seeing seven times that dead, which could have been the case,’’ said George Loring, the town’s warden of the herring run.

Every year, about 200,000 herring journey from the Atlantic Ocean to Whitman’s Pond, where they spawn. Loring and Dowd say they think most of the herring have already made the upstream trip.

They were unable to corral all the herring yesterday, however. Several thousand additional herring were too far up the tunnel for them to prod out, they said.

They hope to take advantage of today’s tides to shepherd them out. After removing their gear yesterday, Dowd and Loring took pride watching the fish as they inched farther upstream.

“The fact that they’re turning around and now migrating up the way they’re supposed to go toward the pond is what we wanted to see,’’ Dowd said. “So, it’s a happy ending.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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