Salmon of the East
River herring are neither as sporty nor as appetizing as that better-known anadromous fish, but they serve a highly nutritious role on nature’s plate.
At first light, you can hear the pitter-patter of hundreds of fish tails. Fresh from the sea, the alewives charge repeatedly en masse, flailing at the rushing water below a small but insurmountable dam, trying to find passage into the lake above. Black-crowned night herons, ghostly masses huddled and flapping in the maples, are watching the fish with great interest on this cool May morning. So, too, is a corps of volunteers on the bank next to the dam, a bucket brigade dedicated to passing these tenacious fish over the manmade barrier that separates the upper and lower Mystic lakes. After more than a century of neglect, alewives have found some friends here in suburban Boston, as they have all along the Atlantic coast of North America.
Alewives and the similar blueback herring have been relegated to second-class status among fish—mere river herring. They are smaller and neither as sporty nor as toothsome as the salmon whose rivers they sometimes share. Nor do they have the economic value of Atlantic herring, their pelagic cousins often encountered in sardine cans.
Historically important, then forgotten as the dam fervor of the industrial revolution blocked so many migratory fish from their spawning grounds, river herring now seem to be gaining some attention, and what they lack in sport and commercial value, these anadromous fish more than make up for in sheer abundance and ecological worth. “Alewives are hugely important to coastal breeding birds,” says David Post, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. “They are in every small creek and pond, and they are readily available right at the time when many of these coastal birds are laying eggs and need that easy source of prey.”
In a way, these are glory days for river herring. Water quality is improving, dams are being smashed, fishways are being built, and awareness of the species’ value is growing throughout their range, which extends from northern Florida to Newfoundland. But strangely, river herring numbers have dropped precipitously in southern New England. And nobody is sure why.
These fish weren’t always overlooked. When European settlers arrived in America, they found creeks along the Atlantic coast brimming with the herring in springtime. Millions of the foot-long, half-pound fish swarmed up coastal streams, funneling thousands of tons of oceanic protein inland at a critical time, after the lean winter.
Spawning herring don’t stay long in the freshwater rivers and ponds; they cast their eggs and depart. Juveniles grow quickly in the fertile summer waters. By the time they drop out of the creeks to the ocean in late summer and early fall, they will be two to four inches long. After three to five years of grazing on marine zooplankton, the grown-up fish return to their natal waters to begin the cycle again. Many will survive the spawning journey and perhaps come back to spawn the following year.
One place to watch the spectacle is in Damariscotta Mills, Maine. In early June the fishway next to a dam holding back Damariscotta Lake is a hub of raucous activity. Fishways can be bypass channels, slotted fish ladders, or even fish elevators; this one is an elegant stone structure directing a stream of water, and fish, around the dam. Thousands of alewives darken the water below the dam, and they’re joined by more than 50 cormorants, hundreds of gulls, and four diving osprey. Bald eagles pass by occasionally, hoping to steal an easy meal from a gull or an osprey. Groups of schoolchildren, here on field trips, watch in awe as the alewives literally swim over one another in their primal urge to reach the lake to spawn.
At the top of the fishway, the alewives dart out through a narrow slot into the lake, often in twos or threes. Here are several largemouth bass, finning lazily, facing the approaching alewives. One nips at an alewife but manages only to knock a scale loose. For alewives, this is truly a life of peril. Among the predators they’ll have to avoid are the many loons that call this lake home and seem to consider alewives bite-size packets of oceanic protein, conveniently delivered to their inland doorstep.
Of special interest to Post is a dam on Queach Brook, near New Haven, Connecticut. In 2006 a new fishway allowed fish to pass the dam for the first time in years, and 3,000 alewives did so. The alewives will now have access to Linsley Pond, at the head of the small coastal watershed. This is perhaps the best-studied pond in the country, due to the research of Evelyn Hutchinson, who is at times referred to as the father of modern limnology. Post has been studying the pond for several years now, trying to understand what its ecosystem was like before the alewives moved in, and how their presence may change it. It’s hard to overestimate the fish’s importance to coastal watersheds, he says. “I think alewives on the East Coast are the analogue to Pacific salmon, because they reach very high numbers. We think about salmon and shad as being these charismatic, important fish, but salmon and shad really only go up the bigger rivers, whereas the river herring in general, bluebacks and alewives, go up into every little creek.”
One such small, unnamed creek connects a coastal pond to upper Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. At midnight in mid-April the road, clogged with commuter traffic during the day, is so quiet you can hear the alewives passing from salt marsh to pond in ones and twos, their determined stuttering tails flapping up through the shallow water in a culvert beneath the road. The creek is so tiny that you can block the channel with two outstretched hands and nab the fish as they try to swim through your fingers. It’s a finite little run, but local anglers know that when these alewives are finished spawning and drop back into the bay in late May, the first large striped bass will be posted at the creek mouth, ready for dinner.
Anglers have long been tuned to the seasonal cycles of river herring. In spring they catch alewives and use them as live bait for striped bass, and they know that when autumn rains push the two- to four-inch juvenile river herring down to the sea, striped bass and bluefish will be waiting. But southern New England anglers have had to do without the favored bait for several years. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, responding to plummeting populations in southern New England, banned all catching of river herring.
Stephen Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, says the current decline is complicated by several trends. “We know that 200 years ago there were a hell of a lot of these river herring, so there’s been this long-term decline,” he says. This trend was reversed about 40 years ago as states started cleaning up their rivers and building fishways, Gephard explains. “Then we have this new recent decline that really began in the mid-1980s, reaching a peak here in 2002, when we closed our state to the taking of river herring.”
Nobody knows exactly what’s causing the crash. Resurgent striped bass and cormorant populations are likely a factor; their numbers have swelled just as river herrings’ have plummeted. Also, poor weather conditions, especially heavy spring rains, have made the past couple of years hard for herring to navigate around dams using fishways. What’s more, it’s possible that river herring are victims of bycatch in the burgeoning
Atlantic herring fishery, which can exceed 200 million pounds annually.
Mike Armstrong of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries says the state’s main indicator run, on the Monument River, has dropped from a peak of 670,000 alewives in 2000 to 75,000 in 2006, but he’s not convinced there’s a single smoking gun. “My feeling is we’re just whacking them from a hundred different directions right now,” says Armstrong, “and the stock just can’t take it.”
Even the most dramatic river herring restoration projects are replenishing just a tiny percentage of the historical populations. The million-plus herring run on Maine’s Kennebec River, the result of ambitious dam-removal and stock-enhancement projects, is widely considered a success story, but the historical population was likely 10 times as large. Meanwhile, striped bass populations may have reached half their pre-industrial abundance, and cormorants appear close to their carrying capacity. It’s a tough balancing act, and there are a lot of unknowns. “I wish we knew more,” says Armstrong. “After all is said and done, we don’t know that much about the behavior of these populations. We probably know more about the surface of the moon.”
Herring restoration projects all along the Atlantic coast might help buffer the concurrent declines. Joe McKeon of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the interest in river herring, which he refers to as “vitamins for the ecosystems,” is only growing. “We’ll put on the ground over $100,000 a year in fish passage just in central New England in various projects,” he says, “and we’re hoping to increase that.”
Back outside of Boston, between the Mystic lakes, a dozen volunteers are ferrying hundreds of alewives over the dam. This exercise of “pass the fish” was organized by Chuck Roche, a postal service employee who moors his boat at the Medford Boat Club, next to the dam. Roche saw a newspaper article several years ago about a fish ladder on Cape Cod, and began dreaming of a similar fishway to allow alewives to swim freely into Upper Mystic Lake. Today’s project is an effort to raise awareness about the need for a fishway. Roche got assistance from Mike Armstrong’s fisheries staff, and informed the local media, including The Boston Globe, which dispatched a photographer.
The herons watching from the trees are just one of many species eagerly awaiting the herring along the Atlantic coast. Gulls, ospreys, and bald eagles prey on them from above. Mink, otters, and raccoons feast from the water’s edge. Cormorants, striped bass, and seals chase them in the brackish estuaries; bass, pickerel, and trout hunt them in the freshwater. Everything that moves, it seems, wants to eat river herring.
Some of the benefits they offer to other fish species, like Atlantic salmon, are both subtle and substantial, says Gephard. “If we had 20 million blueback herring in the [Connecticut] river again, our salmon smolts would not look that appealing to a striped bass,” says Gephard. “A striped bass can get a lot more caloric bang for its buck by gobbling down a couple of 12-inch alewives than it can by snarfing down a six-inch smolt.”
Connecticut’s aggressive campaign to reopen blocked waters to alewives is beginning to bear fruit. Using state time and federal funding, Connecticut builds an average of two fishways annually, and there are many projects that lack only financial support. Once people see a fishway full of passing alewives, says Gephard, they want to have one on their local stream or river.
Like many species, river herring are swimming into a murky future, facing both good and bad news, and many unknowns. But one thing is certain: As the water warms this spring, herring will run up the Connecticut River past Gephard’s office in Old Lyme; they’ll swim into the Mystic River, where they may get another boost from Roche and his volunteers; they’ll swarm into the Damariscotta River, dodging osprey and bass; and, quietly on a moonlit April night, the most persistent will propel themselves up that slender little trickle in Rhode Island, cast their eggs in the small freshwater pond, and swim back out into the vast Atlantic.
Murray Carpenter is a freelance print and radio journalist in Belfast, Maine.
|Joseph R. Tomelleri
Scientific name: (Alosa pseudoharengus)
Common names: River herring, sawbelly, kyak, branch herring, freshwater herring
Description: Iridescent gray-green or violet along the spine, fading down the fish’s sides to a silver underbelly. It usually has a distinct spot just behind the upper margin of the gill cover. Adults are 10 to 11 inches long and weigh 8 to 9 ounces.
Behavior: As an anadromous fish, the alewife lives in saltwater and returns to freshwater to spawn.
Range/habitat: For most of the year alewives are found in large schools along the Atlantic coast, from South Carolina to Newfoundland, foraging on plankton. During spring spawning season they run up coastal streams and rivers to ponds and lakes. Landlocked populations exist in the Great Lakes and in lakes and ponds on the East Coast.
Status: Locally abundant, but mysterious declines are occurring in southern New England.
Threats: Manmade barriers such as dams that sometimes block their spawning migration; localized overfishing.
Outlook: Likely secure in areas where the fish still have unimpeded access to spawning grounds. Declines in southern New England are being monitored.—M.C.
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