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Reviving a River Herring Run

In areas where dams have blocked river herring from their spawning grounds, fisheries managers such as Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries technician Carolyn Woodhead sometimes net the fish and ferry them over the dam in buckets. On the Saint Croix River, access has been restored by trucking the fish upriver to their spawning grounds.

Murray Carpenter

For an indication of just how effective fishways can be, consider the Saint Croix River, which runs between Maine and New Brunswick. The river has multiple dams, and the lowest one, just above the head of tide, had its antiquated fish ladder replaced by a better one in 1980. By 1987 the river’s alewife run had grown from 150,000 to more than 2 million. After anglers raised concerns that the herring were negatively affecting smallmouth bass populations, Maine lawmakers ordered fish ladders closed in 1987 and 1991. The run dropped to 250,000 fish in 1997, 5,000 in 2001, and just 900 in 2002. Canada’s fisheries agencies, displeased with Maine’s unilateral decision, began trapping herring at the Milltown dam in 2001 and trucking them upriver to spawning grounds. Over the next few years, the herring did what comes naturally: They cast their eggs in spring, the immature herring swam to the sea in fall, and the mature fish returned to spawn three to five years later. By 2006, the run was back up to 11,000 fish. The lesson from the St. Croix is simple: Remove access to habitat and the herring run plummets; restore access and the wave of flapping tails rushing inland in spring will swell and nourish our rivers once more.

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