Why are alewives disappearing?

The New London Day 3/28/2024

By Steve Fagin

Kevin Job’s favorite memories of growing up in Norwich involved fishing for stripers with his dad in spring, when enormous schools of alewives would swim upriver.

“We’d see 10,000 in one night. The whole river would turn silver,” he recalled the other day.

Over the years, though, Job noticed that the small forage fish, collectively known as river herring – mostly alewives, with smaller numbers of blueback herring arriving later in the season – were slowly disappearing.

This didn’t make sense. Successful programs to clean up rivers, build fishways, and remove old dams that prevented fish from reaching ponds and lakes where they spawned, should have expanded the alewife stock, not shrunk it. The near-collapse of what once was a healthy fish population prompted state environmental officials to impose a moratorium on taking river herring in 2002.

Job, now fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Envi-ronmental Protection (DEEP), wondered, “What was happening to them?”

Scientific studies on river herring indicate the main cause of the dramatic decline is commercial trawlers off the southern New England shore that have been netting huge quantities of the fish – sometimes more than a million a year. Most are sold for lobster bait, pet food and human consumption in Africa, he said.

“They take millions of fish and we get nothing,” Job noted.

In response, the New England Fishery Management Council is seeking public input on how best to limit the number of river herring that trawlers can legally catch. The council has scheduled a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. April 17 at the Hilton Mystic hotel, during which the public will have an opportunity to comment on an amendment to the council’s long-term management plan to promote a healthy river herring popula-tion.

River herring are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their life in saltwa-ter but return to freshwater to spawn in spring. Then by fall, they’ll have swum back to sea.

Job said restoring the population not only would benefit striped bass, bluefish and fluke that saltwater anglers catch, but also sustain a variety of birds and mammals that feed on river herring: osprey, eagles, herons, cormorants, otters, minks, ra-coons and coyotes.

“Everybody eats them,” he said.

I met Job last week at the mouth of Whitford Brook, where it flows into the Mystic River in Old Mystic. There, he and two seasonal DEEP resource assistants were wad-ing in the frigid, fast-flowing current while installing white panels on the bottom of the brook. These panels will temporarily enable volunteer observers with the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed to see and count alewives once they begin swimming upriver.

The water was still too cold for the fish to return, but Job is hopeful once the tem-perature rises, they’ll start coming back.

Alliance co-founder Maggie Favretti who serves as the nonprofit organization’s first chair director, watched from shore, along with Betsy Graham, an alliance direc-tor, and Bob Graham, Betsy’s husband, while Maggie’s husband, Paul Duddy, took photographs.

Favretti noted that in 2020, some 485,000 migrating alewives were counted in Con-necticut; that number plunged to 178,000 last year.

Favretti said restoring alewives to the Mystic River watershed is an important mis-sion of her organization, and hopes others will get involved with the fish counting. More information about how to participate is available on the alliance website, alli-ancemrw.org.

The April 17 management council meeting at the Hilton Mystic is open to the pub-lic, and also may be viewed virtually as a webinar. More information is available on the council’s website, nefmc.org. The website also includes information about send-ing written comments to the council, due by April 30.

The Mystic session is the last of five public meetings the council has staged this month in New England States with salt water access. There also will be one final webinar on April 22.