Dave Sartwell, outdoor writer
This could be a banner year for the return of alewives to the North Shore. Although we are still early in the run, all indications are that the work being done by a host of different governmental agencies and volunteer organizations and the restrictions being put in place on the commercial take is really starting to pay off.
To put this into perspective it is important to understand the history. Using the Merrimack River watershed as an example, a cursory examination of the passage records tells the story. In 1983 and 1984 there were 4,794 and 1,176 herring and alewives counted at the dam in Lawrence. In the years 1987-1992 the numbers ballooned to 77,209; 361,012; 378,973; 254,242; 379,588; and 102,166.
Then the bottom dropped out. In 1993 the count went down to 14,027 with a low of only 51 in 1996. Since that time the counts have varied, ending with 740 in 2011 and 1,809 last year. However, this year the number has already risen to 16,799 with the migration far from being over.
Similar numbers are being reported on the Parker River at the Woolen Dam on Central Street in Newbury. Runs used to be as high as 20,00 a year there, but the counts have fallen to lower than 500 over the past few years. There have been at least 7,000 up the fishway this year with more coming every day.
Folks viewing the run from the Apple Street Bridge looking over Alewife Brook in Essex that runs out of Chebacco Lake report in that the fish are returning there in numbers as well. And, the tiny fish are coming into Annisquam River to the Little River trying to make their way up to the Lilly Pond.
“We are very happy with the results this year,” said Joe Mckeon, Supervisory Fishery Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. âWe are setting records in the Lamprey River and the rest of the rivers along the whole New England Coast seem to be experiencing a nice recovery.”.
In a recent interview he told me of the history of the efforts of a whole lot of folks to get these runs back to balance all around the Gulf of Maine. Their role in the natural process was not well understood and competing interests served to almost destroy the runs. Dams, pollution, housing developments need for water, and commercial fishing all formed a perfect storm aimed at this little food fish so important to a whole host of predators.
For example, in the 1980’s the St. Croix River in Maine that marks the New Brunswick/Maine border, played host to a run of more than 2.6 million alewives a year. Local smallmouth bass fishing guides and area locals without any supporting scientific data, convinced the Maine Legislature to close the passageways for them to migrate up river. Less than 1,000 fish got by.
“The return of alewives to the St. Croix River offers new hope for the health of the Gulf of Maine and its fisheries. The St. Croix can now become the largest alewife run in the nation, over time,” said Lisa Pohlmann, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “NRCM has been working to reopen this river to its native fish since 2001, to make this ecosystem whole again. As the alewife population rebounds, it will help rebuild Maine’s groundfish stocks and supply bait for Maine’s lobster industry, which is now importing expensive bait from away.”
“In the early 1980’s we started to transport alewives into Lake Winnisquam in New hampshire,” McKeon continued. “They would grow there and then migrate down river to the ocean. In a a few years worth of work we saw the numbers rocket upwards. We stopped doing that and the results were the dismal returns in the 1990′.”
“However, several years ago we started hauling alewives overland again and planting them in small ponds and brooks that feed the Merrimack River,” he continued. “For example, we stocked 25,00 fish last year and have already planted over 10,000 fish this year and will be doing a lot more. We have found that putting them into big dam impoundments does not work very well. These fish seem to do best in small streams and ponds. I think we are starting to see the results of our efforts this year.”
Alison Bowden, Director of Freshwater Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts agrees with the need to expand the numbers.
“Alewives and blueback herring are really important to the health of our rivers,” he said recently. “They’re the connection between land and sea that keeps our ecosystems vibrant here in coastal New England.”
Last summer, the Conservancy joined with partners to remove the Hopewell Mills Dam in Taunton, and researchers are already seeing fish return to reaches of the river which they have been unable to access since 1818. An underwater camera recently photographed the first alewife to pass the site this spring. This “pioneer” fish was soon followed by the early waves of the spring herring run, according to a research effort being jointly funded by the Conservancy and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
During the past year, the New England Fisheries Management Council adopted new rules for commercial fishermen in the ocean to minimize river herring by-catch (unintended harvest) in the Atlantic herring fishery off the coast of northeastern states. A ruling by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on whether or not to list both species of river herring under the federal Endangered Species Act has yet to be acted on.
The local fishing has been terrific. Cod and haddock fishing on Jefferies Ledge and other spots has yielded a lot of nice-sized fillets. Dropping clams deep is the ticket. Jigging will bring results, but there is no substitute for meat deep.
The striper fishing is really starting to pick up along the shoreline as the baitfish return. A lot of small keepers can be had especially during the last two hours of an outgoing tide. It is nice to see a lot of small stripers around. it is a sign of a healthy population.