Alewife harvesters of Maine takes stock

First published in Landings, April, 2015.

In April, Maine lobstermen begin to think about a small anadromous fish whose presence in local rivers heralds the advent of spring. Alewives come back to the rivers of their birth in order to spawn the next generation of the small silvery fish much desired by lobstermen as bait. Forty Maine towns hold the rights to fish for alewives as they run up into local lakes. Twenty-four of those towns currently have active alewife fisheries.

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of alewife runs in the state is the purpose of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine. NOAA photo.

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of alewife runs in the state is the purpose of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine. NOAA photo.

The lead organization representing alewife fishermen is the Alewife Harvesters of Maine (AHM). The AHM was created in 2007 largely through the efforts of Jeffrey Pierce, an alewife fisherman and carpenter from Dresden. The impetus for starting the group was Amendment 2 to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) River Herring Management Plan. The Amendment proposed closing commercial and recreational fishing for alewives and shad beginning in 2012, unless a state could prove it had a sustainable management plan acceptable to the ASMFC.

“When they were holding Amendment 2 hearings, no one showed up downeast,” recalled Theo Willis, adjunct research professor at the University of Southern Maine, who helped organize the AHM. “In the midcoast, though, there were at least 50 people in the room. But they spoke as individuals. There was no unified voice and it was pretty clear that without a strong voice we would get squashed.”

AlewivesThe issue was whether Maine’s alewife runs were well managed and sustainable. Maine had long had a tradition of alewife harvests each spring, but whether that meant the runs were sustainable was at question. So Pierce and fellow harvesters worked with the Department of Marine Resources to gather pertinent data.

Some of that data came from fish scales. “Fish scale samples are the primary tool used to evaluate if harvests are sustainable,” Willis explained. If the fish coming to a given river are young, the odds are they have not spawned yet or if so, only for one year. If there are fish of many ages in a population, it’s likely that some of those fish are probably repeat spawners, which is sign of a sustainable stock.

The state’s River Herring Sustainable Fishing Plan, which called for a limited season, 72-hour closures to allow fish to return to the sea, and restrictions on gear, was accepted by the ASMFC. The scale samples indicated that Maine’s existing runs had a strong diversity of ages, suggesting that the runs were healthy.

The AHM turned to other issues. In 2010, the organization formed its first board of directors. About that time, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservation organizations proposed that river herring be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). If listed, strict restrictions on alewife and blueback herring harvests would be put into place. The AHM again worked with the DMR to counter the notion that alewives were endangered throughout their range.

In 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to pursue listing the fish species. In 2015, the New England Fisheries Management Council also decided that there was not enough information to list the river herring as endangered under the ESA.

While reacting to possible federal restrictions, the AHM also focused on helping municipalities restore and open up additional runs for alewives. Opening the St. Croix River to alewife migration was another major effort pursued by AHM. Alewife passage up over the Grand Falls and Woodland dams had been blocked since 1995 due to claims by sport fishing guides that the fish affected small mouth bass populations. A law passed in 2013 opened up the river to alewives once again. A bill proposed in the current Legislature, LD 800, has the potential to reclose the river to alewives.

“The Association is in what I’d call its late adolescence,” Willis commented. “Early on it was literally just Jeff and a couple of other guys. As issues have come up we’ve refined tactics and pulled in other people.” Now the organization, with funding from the Broadreach Foundation, has completed its first strategic plan. It conducted a survey of alewife harvesters to find out what they needed to be a strong industry. The answer was the AHM. The goal of the plan is to restore the 41 historic alewife runs in the state within ten years and increase the number of alewives within the state. Among the various objectives in the plan is to create a “How-To” manual for towns and individuals on establishing and maintaining a sustainable alewife run.