News & Updates
Menhaden in the Moshassuck

Menhaden Videos

1. Millions of Menhaden 2019 (2 minutes, 52 seconds)
2. Menhaden Run 2015 (1 minute, 44 seconds)
3. Adult Menhaden in Providence (1 minute, 44 seconds)
4. Menhaden Fishing Industry (9 minutes, 52 seconds)

September 2014 Providence Journal Article.

Moshassuck Fish Census

2016 Census Recap

Protect the Menhaden

These comments were sent to the Atlantic States Fisheries Managment Council as public comments on the Menhaden management plan they will be voting on this fall. I urge eveyone to weigh in and protect menhaden.

I went for a walk this morning in one of my favorite places, on the very old path along the Seekonk River at the edge of Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I have been walking there for 21 years, ever since I moved to Providence. It is called a river, but it is really the ocean the northernmost extension of Narragansett Bay, with a dredged channel for boats heading up to the Pier in Pawtucket, and a wide mudflat on the Providence side of the water. The East Providence side is dominated by the sewage treatment plant and the old landfill. The Providence side is one of the most majestic forests in New England, a mile along the river of steep bluff filled with 170 year old hardwoods. Even cooler is that when the old trees fall down, they leave them there. I often sit on a log that fell into the water just before I moved here 21 years ago. It is seriously decaying, lost all its branches a decade ago, but the trunk leaning down from the stone wall protecting the path from the high tide (except in big storms) into the sea will still support me when I sit on it, on dry days. Like today.

The spring after I moved here I saw my first RI osprey from that tree, and I have even seen a small flatfish swim under me once. Later that year I saw my first menhaden and was amazed. For 9 months I had been looking into the water every day as I walked the river and saw little life in it, but come August I saw endless streams of 3 inch fish swimming by, almost rivers of fish. I eventually learned what they were. I also started seeing menhaden in August and September downtown in the Providence, Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers.

I started Friends of the Moshassuck shortly after that, as that little river surely needed friends after its 300+ year industrial history, and I walked by almost every day. Eventually Friends of the Moshassuck developed a video project on urban wildlife in the watershed. The focus is mostly on breeding toads and the restoration of breeding habitat a ways upstream, but come August and September, I walk along Canal Street and the South Water Street waterfront video camera in hand because menhaden continue to fascinate and are the one giant flash of life we see each year in the city. Here is one from early in the 2017: (see others above).

But I want to return us to the Seekonk waterfront. This morning, 60 degrees, sunny, calm, the tide was in, lapping the stone wall. And walking along the path for the half mile I covered, almost everywhere were very young menhaden. From 1.5 inches to 3 inches, with of course the majority, the great majority, being the smallest size class. A few times I saw menhaden jumping offshore, larger ones from the size of the splashes, which means they are being hunted from below, while below the osprey’s favorite perch there were the quite stinky remnants of adult menhaden all over the place. Between the stinky adults, the jumpers off shore, and the rivers of tiny ones next to the wall, I could only think of what else happens in menhaden season along the Seekonk. The Osprey have a nest on a platform at the Bucklin Point sewage treatment plant. This year for the second straight, they seem to have 3 youngsters as I occasionally catch glimpses of 5 hunting at one time. All summer we have been seeing one or two, but come August, when the flow of menhaden is at its peak, its time to fledge the Osprey babies, and teach them to hunt. And menhaden is what they learn on, in numbers that even a beginning hunter can make a living on.

But is is not just the Osprey. The Cormorants are seen all year round, but this time of year they are found in flotillas. Blue Heron numbers multiply, and one never sees Egrets except at this time. Kingfishers are darting everywhere. And even the gulls were fishing. Gulls are not really designed to hunt mobile prey like menhaden, they scavenge and pick up stranded crabs. But this time of year you see gulls sitting on the water trying to catch little fish in the water. I have never seen a gull catch a fish, but clearly it must be a worthwhile source of food as the behavior persists, and one can only think that it works because it is directed at a prey so numerous that even a clumsy gull can catch its fill from prey that floats just below the surface eating plankton.

It was the eating plankton that drew me to an analogy. I went to Yellowstone a few years ago, and there is one place in Yellowstone in which it is easy to see bison, the Madison River Valley. You look over the valley and there are bison everywhere. Bison need to drink pretty regularly, so they need to stay close enough to rivers that they can get to water most days. And then you realize that at one time, 200 years ago, there were herds of bison along almost every river in the grasslands of North America. And now there is one river valley that has a free ranging herd (of course they get shot if they go out of the park) and you remember what we have lost when you see what we still have.

Menhaden are the keystone species of the coastal estuaries in eastern North America. Osprey have returned since we stopped using DDT, but their continued recovery depends very much on menhaden. Eagles eat many as well, and the return of Bald Eagles to Rhode Island is an ongoing wonder. 3 kinds of herons, egrets, and kingfishers all rely upon menhaden to build up a little fat before the hard times of winter. Seals have returned to Rhode Island, Stripped bass and Bluefish make fishermen very happy, and all depend upon the huge schools of menhaden. One way you know this is true is because the schools of little ones always vastly outnumber the schools of big ones. So many die to keep the circle of life flowing.

Straying a bit from the bison analogy, we can not afford to have menhaden in just a few places, and even more than bison, menhaden need the whole sea to do their work, to be food for all things great and small. No park could contain a school. So what we have to do is protect the entire species, make sure that when people take some for our needs, that we leave enough for everything else. That we manage menhaden based on ecosystems needs, not human greed. So I strongly urge you to support menhaden management based on leaving enough in the sea for the circle of life to flow abundantly along our coasts, that we base our management on ecosystems not on a species by species basis, and remember how much of the ecosystem menhaden support and what that means to our communities.

Menhaden in the Moshassuck September 2012

It's mid September and the menhaden are back in the lower Moshassuck. If the conditions are right, sun, rain, tide, temperature, then you can see thousands of small, 2 to 3 inch menhaden in schools in the river along Canal street. The menhaden excursion to downtown in September is something I have been watching since I moved to Providence in 1996.

It varies every year. Including when it arrives. This year is dominated by small fish. Their big sisters are around as I saw them in the Seekonk River today making some very sizable splashes. Several years ago the big ones came to downtown in huge numbers, estimated at 10,000 fish, and stayed for two months. For years the only ones I saw very small ones, first year mostly, But three times in the last 8 years large ones dominated. And some years you hardly see a one. Hopefully the days of none are behind us. The fish bring much to the urban core.

The places to see them are in the canal immediately north of the Citizens Bank building, going up Canal street. Especially fruitful has been the pool immediately north of bridge spanning the river at Park Row. Several times this summer a 40 inch eel was seen in the pool, but at shallow water the menhaden stand out against the wall in the middle of the river. Crabs are also a daily siting.

I wandered along the Woonasquatucket River this week as well and found an abundance of menhaden along the Promenade. I am a bit jealous of my friends at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council their river is bigger and gets a lot more fish. The herring runs of spring are even more of a sign of ecological healing in the Woonie despite the superfund site.

Maybe that makes the sitings in the mighty Mo's estuary more of an enjoyment. They are harder to come by.

My favorite accompaniment to the menhaden run is found below the collapsing bridge below the Statehouse on Canal St. The broken bridge holds up a large pile of woody and trashy debris, with its bones being trees that have floated down the river. The pieces change, but the overall structure is pretty stable and survives floods. The bridge may not survive many more big storms. But until it washes out to sea the herons, Great Blue and Night will use it for refuge and hunting. This morning I saw the Night Heron nab a little fish and swallow hard. Yesterday it was a young Great Blue that I greeted on my way to the office. Often the taxi drivers who wait at the taxi stand along the river on Canal and I converse about the birds and fish we see. Sometimes we do not share a vocal language, but gestures work.

Thats the news from the lower Moshassuck. I will be checking out the headwaters later in the week, and co leading a hike with The Nature Conservancy on September 22, so maybe a headwaters report will follow as well as updates if I see anything interesting at the North Burial Ground or along the tidewater.

Menhaden in the Moshassuck

In 1998 I founded Friends of the Moshassuck and have been intently watching the river ever since. I watch most of the lower half of the river, but walk along the tidal portion of the river, from just north of Smith St to the confluence with the Woonasquatucket River at least 4 days a week. I have watched the river in all seasons, at all times of day, in all tides. I have watched the river enough to actually be able to predict pretty well what life forms will be visible when. The highlight of every year in the river is the menhaden run from Mid August to late September/early October.

The Moshassuck is a small urban river that runs from near the Lincoln Mall into Downtown Providence, shallow enough that often one can see from Canal St. right to the bottom of the river. It is filled with the debris of urban life, including the ubiquitous shopping cart. The shallowness, combined with the view from Canal St giving one an opportunity to look straight down into the river, really allows people to see the life in the river. This year the highlight has been the large number of blue crabs that have frequented the river. Never before this year have I noticed the blue crabs that far inland.

The menhaden have been coming in to the river for as long as I have been watching. Every year about the middle of August they start appearing just above the Citizens Bank building, which sits at the confluence, extending as far north on occasion as just north of Smith St. The number of menhaden varies every year. I first noticed them about 2000, when there was a very large run in August and September, you felt you could walk across the river on their backs. The following years the runs were much smaller. If you looked frequently you saw some, but not every day, and only small schools were visible. 2005 was another bumper year for menhaden. They were everywhere in huge numbers. You saw them on all tides, again feeling you could cross the river on their backs. The run lasted until early October. Several times I saw flocks of gulls landing on the river and catching fish, a behavior I had never seen so close up before. I also frequent the Seekonk River at Swan Point cemetery. One does not normally get as good a look at the water there but what we are able to do is gauge the fish runs from the birds. But in 2005 you could see huge menhaden schools from the shore at high tides, they were swimming along the shore in schools 100 foot long. One school right after the other. On days with big schools readily apparent the gulls, cormorants, herons, egrets, and osprey were also very noticeable.

2006 had a much smaller run of menhaden than 2005 (I should note that as I write this the menhaden are still in the lower Moshassuck) but still larger than some of the other years of the last few. Schools are smaller, less frequent, spread further apart, and have not extended north of Smith St. The best watching this year has been in the basin between Citizens Bank and the remnants of the building that covers over the river, across from the Roger Williams Historic site. I have not observed a gull frenzy, nor have cormorants been frequent visitors, though I did notice a black capped night heron on several occasions.

The smaller runs have also been apparent on the Seekonk River with large bird feedings being relatively infrequent, though on one perfect low tide I observed 5 Great Blue Heron all catching fish while standing next to the reef right near the channel just off Swan Point.

2005 sticks out for several reasons. One was the previously mentioned gull feeding frenzy right downtown. Another was that on night there was a Waterfire and the menhaden were everywhere in huge numbers. The shiny bodies were showing up in the firelight and people were amazed. Everyone was commenting on the fish. And finally with the fish in the Moshassuck in huge numbers the predators moved in as well. It was interesting to nearly every day see some larger predatory fish move in among the schools. It was like the parting of the Red Sea when a bluefish would swim up with waves of menhaden parting to let them by. It was pretty clear that none of the menhaden wanted to be on the edge of the school, clearly the most vulnerable spots, so the fish were constantly circling back to be on the inside of the school.

This year I have extended my fish watching to the Providence River, along the walk on the eastern shore from Point St to downtown. Menhaden have been frequently noticeable, and one day I noticed a feeding frenzy directly under Rt 195. The Bluefish were chasing some fairly large schools of menhaden. The menhaden were so unnerved that several of them jumped right out of the river, landing on the shore and unable to return to the water. A mallard was eating the ones that landed on the shore. Also observable were the bluefish, though only as moving phantoms. One would see shapes about 9 inches long darting, and occasionally see a moving shape that was dragging a silvery menhaden through the water in its mouth. You could barely see the bluefish, but the silver menhaden were very visible and clearly not swimming despite their rapid motion.

Menhaden have been in Narragansett Bay probably since the glaciers left, but the industrialization of Providence and the covering over of the sewers that the rivers of Providence became probably excluded the menhaden from downtown through most of the 20th century. But the water is cleaner, the rivers have been daylighted and it is great to see the aquatic life that has returned to the City.


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© 2006-2023 Friends of the Moshassuck, all rights reserved. Images by, Mr. Ducke, and Jim Hendrickson.