Alewives in trouble outside of Maine

First published in the MLA newsletter, July,  2010.

During May, Spruce Head lobsterman Bob Baines may drive 100 miles on a midcoast circuit to collect alewives for bait, most days of the week. Putting all those miles on his truck doesn’t bother him, much, because he finds alewives fish well. “Without alewives, my profit for spring lobstering would be significantly less, so it’s worth the time and effort,” he said.

Alewives are still harvested at select locations on the Maine coast.

Each year thousands of the little silver fish home in on Maine, returning from unknown regions of the ocean. Alewives come back to the fresh water in order to spawn the next generation. Once a staple food in many Maine coastal communities, the fish are managed by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and by local municipalities.

Thirty-five communities have commercial harvesting rights to alewives found in local rivers, according to the DMR. Most of the alewives caught, however, are used principally for lobster bait, not human food. Slightly more than one million pounds were landed in Maine in 2008.

But outside of Maine alewives appear to be in trouble. Total landings have dropped from 70 million pounds in the late 1950s to fewer than 1.4 million pounds in 2008, according to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) statistics. So few fish were returning to their rivers that the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Virginia have placed a moratorium on alewife harvesting.

NMFS recently listed alewives as a “species of concern.” In 2009, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) passed Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Shad and River Herring, which calls for closing alewife fisheries as of January, 2012 if a state cannot create a sustainable management plan for its alewife fishery. States were required to develop sustainability targets in the plan, and if the plan is approved, each state will have to maintain those targets in order to keep its fishery open.

Image courtesy of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department

The Maine Sustainable Fisheries Management Plan for river herring, as alewives and blueback herring are termed, has been submitted to the ASMFC. The Commission’s Shad and River Herring Technical Committee met in mid-June to review the Maine plan, and the plans of three other states and the District of Columbia. The plan is based on past surveys conducted by DMR biologists as well as data from commercial landings.

“For plans that are approved by the technical commitee and the board, states and jurisdictions will have to maintain their sustainability targets in order to keep their fishery open,” explained Kate Taylor, ASMFC River Herring Fishery Management Plan coordinator.

The Maine Legislature created a new license for commercial pelagic and anadromous fishing and a new dedicated fund to provide the revenue needed to conduct research and collect landings data related to management. This data will help Maine meet the requirements of the management plan.

A research project undertaken by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Southern Maine seeks to gather the data that will support the management plan. The goal of the two-year project is to determine if each river and lake has its own individual population of the fish. Researchers are identifying alewives caught in 14 rivers along the Maine coast and also studying alewives caught at sea as bycatch. Biologists believe that significant quantities of alewives are taken from the population as bycatch in ocean trawl fisheries, a much greater source of the species decline than any river or lake fisheries.

According to data compiled by Matt Cieri, fisheries scientist with the DMR, river herring caught as bycatch at sea comprised approximately 1.69 million pounds in 2007, compared to the 902,000 pounds caught in rivers and lakes. If alewife populations are unique to each river, then it may be possible to forecast a drop in each population based on the number of fish from that river caught at sea.

For lobstermen, assuring a steady source of the valued spring bait is key. Knowing where the alewives come from and balancing the catch at sea with the catch on shore will remain critical.