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One with nature, counting the fish

Volunteer Ed Menz watches as herring swim toward the fish ladder at Upper Mill Pond in Pembroke.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Volunteer Ed Menz watches as herring swim toward the fish ladder at Upper Mill Pond in Pembroke.

The time was 9:44 a.m., and Bob Sigsby had been waiting for this moment for 30 days.

As Sigsby approached the Third Herring Brook, a North River tributary near the Hanover-Norwell border, he saw the water roiling with fish.

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The 68-year-0ld Hanover resident enthusiastically began jotting down statistics in an official record book. Water temperature: 60 degrees Farenheit. Air temperature: 58 degrees. Twenty-five percent cloudy. And the big news, herring counted within a 10-minute window: 100-plus.

“I wasn’t hoping for fish that day,” Sigsby said with a kind of awe that morning late last month. “The water was teeming with herring. I could see the backs coming up. It was terribly exciting just to know there are actually fish in there.”

Sigsby, a website designer, is part of an elaborate system of about six dozen people of all ages who have dedicated brief pockets of time this spring toward a solitary ritual: an annual herring count during the spawning season of April 1 through May 31.

The North and South Rivers Watershed Association organizes the count, which takes place seven days a week, up to nine times a day, at locations in Marshfield, Norwell, Pembroke, and Scituate.

Each volunteeer selects one or more fish ladders and commits to performing a 10-minute count once or twice weekly. They are trained to watch the top of the fish ladders, check the waiting area below the ladder, and record their findings in notebooks kept in boxes at each of the sites, said Sara Grady, a watershed ecologist and coordinator of the count.

The count helps scientists track the health of the herring population, Grady said. The number of herring in coastal streams has declined because dams or other obstacles have blocked access to spawning grounds. Herring are crucial in the coastal food chain as a major food source for striped bass, bluefish, osprey, herons, and other coastal species, she said.

For Sigsby, the two-month role of citizen scientist is a way of carrying on a tradition, a love of the water. He was raised on the Oregon coast, and worked for years as a commercial salmon fisherman. He said counting connects him with his past and the memory of his father, also a fisherman and preservationist.

Sigsby appears at Third Herring Brook sometime between 7 and 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to perform the count. On April 1, he was wearing a ski parka in 38-degree weather, but by May 14 it was 50 degrees and pleasant. Only once – on April 30 – has he spotted herring. It was such a major event that he photographed the fish and circulated the pictures.

Now he can’t wait to see more herring.

“Isn’t it strange? They come in pulses. You might see a lot one day and then nothing for a week,” he said.

The biggest runs will occur between now and the end of May, which means the high time for counters is at hand, he said.

This is good news for Erick Tan, a fourth-grader at South Shore Public Charter School in Norwell. He and his 14-year-old sister, Emily, go with their mother to count herring twice a week in Marshfield and Scituate. For Erick, the task fulfills a community service requirement at his school.

No herring spotted yet, he reported last week. But despite the absence of herring so far, he said he looks forward to the ritual of visiting the fish ladder with his family.

“You open a box with a book in it. There is a pencil, too. Open up to the next page, you write your initials. Inside the book, I put the temperature, my initials, and comments on what I’ve seen so far,” he said.

“I’ve seen little eels and some fish, but they didn’t go across into the pond. They were swimming in the right direction, though,” he said in a spirit of high hope.

One day soon, Erick expects to see herring and use the fish counter, a round device that attaches to a finger and “you click every time a fish crosses over.” It’s kept in “the special toolbox” on site.

His sister said she is also a fan of the herring count.

“It is really cool to be out in nature. I like seeing all the birds and waiting for the fish. They are supposed to come really quick when they start coming,” she said.

Back at Third Herring Brook, Sigsby said that volunteers of all ages take solace, and enjoyment, in the trappings of the job.

“I try to look like I’m officially a fish counter,” he joked. “You feel almost official when you are standing with your notebook in hand. I don’t know what other people think, but I feel very important.”

Moreover, the record books create a feeling of solidarity and healthy competition between the counters, he said.

“Some people say they’ve seen a few trout, or that it’s cloudy, and recently someone wrote in all capital letters that a passerby stopped and said, ‘Don’t jump!’ ’’ he said.

Cora Leonardi, a first-time volunteer from Rockland, has seen one herring go up the fish ladder, 50 herring swimming in the shallows, and one enraged swan.

On one of Leonardi’s early visits, the swan was protecting a nest. Alarmed by the sight of Leonardi’s border collie, the swan starting flapping and moving toward her dog, who jumped into the water to meet the attack.

Leonardi managed to coax the dog out of the water and into her parked car, then proceeded with the count.

Ultimately, it’s the count that matters, and volunteers have been spotting herring recently, Sigsby said. One person reported seeing a dozen, and another recorded “more than I could count.”

Anticipation makes the arrival of the herring a beautiful thing, he said.

“Now that I looked this morning and know people saw fish in the last few days,’’ he said, “I almost want to run down there three or four times a day just to see all the fish.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.
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