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.