The Results Are In: Alewives Can Fish As Well As Herring

TNC photo

Herring and its availability and cost have been problematic for Maine’s fishermen for well over a decade, the past several seasons being no exception. The unpredictable nature of both the availability and cost of herring creates considerable business uncertainty for fishermen.  And, as every small business owner knows, success lies in the ability to control and predict as many variables as possible. In an industry where so much — for example, weather, catch and dock price — is unpredictable, any increase in business certainty can have a considerable impact.

Against this backdrop, last spring and summer we partnered with The Nature Conservancy of Maine (TNC) on a project to address the seasonal herring shortage and leverage successful habitat restoration efforts that have resulted in an increased alewife population in Maine.  The idea for the project came from a casual conversation between myself and Jeremy Bell, who is responsible for habitat restoration at TNC.  In February, Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op (THFC) members discussed the idea and focused on lobster fishing for new-shells using frozen alewives. The membership voted unanimously to pursue the project. A few of our members had used frozen alewives from Canada in previous summers, so we already had some anecdotal evidence that they would fish well.

There are 35 Maine municipalities that have commercial harvesting rights to alewives on 39 streams and rivers. These runs provide revenue to the towns, which typically lease fishing privileges to independent operators. Each town must submit an annual harvesting plan to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) for approval that includes a three-day-per-week escapement period to assure the population is conserved. Habitat restoration efforts pursued by the TNC, Maine Rivers, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust and the DMR, which include large projects like dam removals and smaller projects such as constructing new fishways, cleaning fish passages and restoring culverts, have all contributed to increased alewife populations. The rebounding alewife populations are in stark contrast to the herring population, which faces pressure from all sides.

M. Carey pic

We got the brass tacks of the project figured out this spring, just a few weeks before the alewives started to run. We had seven fishermen who participated in the project. TNC offset the cost of the alewives and the rented freezer space and the rest was up to the co-op. “We did a fair amount of scrambling to get the alewives,” noted Jason Witham, a participating THFC member. “It was definitely added work – we were getting calls from the Warren and Damariscotta traps when there were extra alewives and whoever could would run down and load up, then we would all meet at the freezer and divide the alewives into trays to be frozen.”

Participating fishermen worked with TNC’s Geoff Smith to define criteria of what data we would collect. “TNC was great to work with, they kept the data requirements simple and straightforward, incorporating our feedback so it was manageable for us,” noted Josh Miller, THFC board president. Fishing pairs, participants baited one trap with alewives and one with herring and then tracked the results.

“Our goal here is pretty simple,” said Smith. “With big alewife runs beginning to come back each year, we want to provide an economic return to coastal communities to complement the big ecological gains we are seeing in so many of our rivers. The partnership with THFC has been a great opportunity to test the viability of the frozen alewives as a local, supplemental bait source for Maine lobstermen. The Co-op has been a great partner in the project.”

In the end the data show the herring fishing just a little better on average, but not by a huge margin, generally it was a  +/- 10% differential. “I found the alewives got bigger lobsters and a better-quality lobster,” observed Jamie Keiser, a participating member.  Not all fishermen were impressed by how alewives fished. “In the area where I fished, comparing the alewives versus the herring, the herring out-fished the alewives by a reasonable margin. At other times of the year and in different fishing areas, the difference may be negligible,” Dan Miller noted.

All participating fishermen, however, said they would have gladly used more alewives if they’d been available.  We plan to continue the partnership with TNC next year and the next question to answer is the actual economics of using frozen alewives. In our very small pilot (we had a total of 211 bushels), we established that alewives fish comparably to herring.  But identifying the real cost is important. How expensive does herring have to be to make the extra work, such as the cost of freezing the fish, make sense from an economic perspective?

There’s no doubt that using locally-sourced bait, helping the local economy (the towns and trap operators benefit from extra sales) and taking some pressure off the herring fishery have positive impacts.  Projects like this will never solve the bait problem, but they represent a small step forward and a good, mutually-beneficial intersection between conservation and commercial fishing.