Growing up in central Connecticut, feeding my love of the ocean required some travel. It meant trips down to Rocky Neck State Park, Misquamicut State Beach near my mom’s hometown of Westerly, RI, or over to my great aunt’s place on the island of Nantucket. What I didn’t know at the time is that every year the ocean was traveling to me, in a manner of speaking.
Every spring, sea-run herring, also known as alewives or river herring, migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to rivers along the eastern seaboard to spawn. A herring run, which can include millions of fish, is a truly spectacular phenomenon, but these humble fish are also an important food source for a mind-boggling array of predators. Tuna, cod, dolphins and other fishes and marine mammals hunt them at sea. Striped bass, bluefish and weakfish eat them in estuaries. And white perch, largemouth bass, herons, eagles, otters, minks and many others wait at the freshwater end of their journey.
River herring are especially important for ospreys, which were the focus of EDF’s first ever environmental campaign. The fish return to Atlantic coast waterways around the same time as the birds, a time when ospreys are in desperate need of nourishment following a long flight as they get ready to nest, breed and raise their young.
Unfortunately, overall river herring populations are in trouble. In fact, the fish is currently being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. A host of environmental and governmental organizations, EDF among them, have responded with efforts to rebuild river herring populations by making it easier for them to reach spawning grounds, ensuring good quality habitats when they arrive, and restricting the numbers of the fish that can be caught in the ocean.
Building fish ladders and undamming rivers
The Mattabesset River is an 18-mile long tributary of Connecticut River that flows through my hometown of Berlin to its mouth on the Connecticut’s mainstem. Herring migrate up the Mattabesset, but upon reaching Berlin they were prevented access to the best upstream spawning habitat by a dam built more than one hundred years ago.
Today, the dam creates a water supply for emergency fire suppression at a nearby factory, so it can’t be removed. But the factory owner worked with The Nature Conservancy and the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to install a fish ladder that allows access to 50 square miles of spawning and nursery habitat. The fish ladder was officially opened in early May, and an underwater viewing window confirms that herring and other species are already using it to get upstream.
Later in May, I traveled up to Damariscotta Lake in Midcoast Maine (on the shores of which I was married last summer!) to visit the Damariscotta Mills fish ladder, built in 1807. The ladder currently supports one of the largest river herring runs in Maine, topping a half million fish in recent years. This past year, the community-based organization that manages the ladder completed a major renovation, which should allow the run to grow even larger.
Two other initiatives in Maine are also worth noting. Last year, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust removed the Great Works dam, which had blocked migration of herring and other fish since 1830. Now, the Trust has announced a date, July 22, for the removal of the Veazie dam, downstream from the former Great Works site.
Further up the coast, the St. Croix River forms the border between Maine and New Brunswick. In 1980, construction of a fish ladder at the Milltown Dam, the first of six barriers along the river, helped increase the herring population from less than 200,000 to nearly 3 million within a decade. However, unfounded concerns about the impacts of alewives on non-native smallmouth bass in the watershed led to closure of the upstream fish ladders, and by 2002 the run had crashed to less than 1,000 fish.
After nearly 20 years of debate, the Maine legislature earlier this year finally voted in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe that re-opens the fish ladders and allows herring to once again repopulate the watershed. Together, the Penobscot and St. Croix herring runs could reach 40 to 50 million spawning fish, with many more juveniles migrating out to sea, as recovery unfolds. EDF helped make both the scientific case and economic case for restoration.
Efforts are also underway to sustain herring populations in the open sea. The largest fishery by volume on the Atlantic coast harvests small pelagic species, including Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, squid and butterfish. River herring school with these species, especially Atlantic herring, and there are growing concerns that large numbers of river herring are being accidentally caught by these fisheries, as “bycatch.” Just last week, both the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Councils voted to place limits on the allowable at-sea catch of river herring to help this species recover. EDF provided both Councils with scientific analyses that helped establish their policy goals and management strategies.
In fact, EDF has been working for years to insure the survival of the river herring. Back in 2004, my first project with the organization focused on restoring herring runs in rivers across Long Island. And my colleague Dr. Doug Rader has an even longer history working to protect river herring habitat and improve river herring fisheries in North Carolina.
Today, our work to rebuild New England’s iconic groundfish fishery partly relies on restoration of river herring, given the strong ecological link with cod populations. And while life has not been easy for the river herring in recent years, as the movement to build sustainable ecosystems and fisheries for them continues, the future for this resilient little fish looks hopeful.