First published in Landings, August, 2017

“So many they turned the water black,” “hundreds of barrels in a single tide.” These are quotes describing river herring migrations 75-100 years ago. River herring are alewife and blueback herring, small bait fish related to Atlantic herring. They are anadromous, meaning they swim into freshwater to spawn and both adults and juveniles later return to the sea. They once frequented nearly every stream and river of the Atlantic coast.

The history of the fishery in Maine goes back to the early 1600s, when alewives from Arrowsic were reported as good bait for cod. The big river basins — Penobscot, Kennebec and St. Croix, along with dozens of smaller rivers and streams — hosted millions of adults each year and produced billions of juveniles that entered the marine environment. The juveniles fed hungry populations of groundfish, tuna, whales, seals and sea birds that graced Maine’s bays and coves. By the late 1970s river herring were largely forgotten by most Mainers living inland and on the coast. Where dams hadn’t blocked their way completely, pollution made the rivers unpassable. The Clean Water Act of 1977 made it possible to clean up the rivers so they supported aquatic life. Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) kept a candle burning for the little fish, taking steps whenever possible to bring river herring back. With the help of places like Damariscotta, Warren and Orland, where the fish never completely disappeared, DMR mounted a quiet crusade to reintroduce alewives through stocking and fixing passage at dams. The Kennebec Hydro-Developers Agreement, built around the decommissioning and removal of Edwards Dam in 1999, kicked off two decades of concerted restoration efforts along the river between Waterville and Popham Beach.

We are seeing the fruits of those efforts today at Benton Falls, where 3.8 million alewives passed in 2017. The most recent strides are being made in the Penobscot as part of the Penobscot River Restoration Project (PRRP). The list of partners behind the PRRP is as long as the list of rivers flowing into Penobscot Bay.

What does all this mean for the lobster fishery? One word: bait! Alewives are a home-grown spring lobster bait. The plump, oily bodies laden with spawn are a potent attractor for lobster and crab. The challenge is that they are only available for about ten weeks. The Alewife Harvesters of Maine, an industry and advocacy group for Maine’s river fishermen, is looking for ways to extend the supply into the summer season and maintain a sustainable fishery for the future. But that’s not the only use for these fish.

Alewives are also harbingers of healthy ecosystems and are ambassadors for ocean life. In freshwater, alewives encounter people and communities directly. Many communities are starting alewife counts at fish ladders, data that is then provided to towns and DMR to assess run health. DMR has its own sentinel locations where sophisticated electronics keep track of how many alewives are returning year after year.

DMR uses restoration stocking of adults (brood stocking) to kickstart populations that have disappeared. The resulting juveniles return to the ponds where they were spawned three and five years later. Four years ago, the Penobscot River had 12,708 alewives returning to the river above Veazie and 49,000 alewives were stocked by DMR in the lakes. In 2017 about 1.95 million returned to the Penobscot. Growth in these new restoration projects is nearly exponential, as much as doubling every year of stocking. Older projects also did well in 2017; Benton Falls set a record. More than 40,000 alewives passed up the Saco River, the third-largest count in two decades. Even the embattled St. Croix River exceeded 158,000 fish for the first time in 20 years. 

Alewife harvesters also had a good year. Locations like Warren and Benton Falls did extremely well, but weather affected some smaller harvest operations. The cool spring pushed fish out of some of the smaller streams, like Nequasset and Dresden Mills. Many locations requested an extension on their season to combat the slow early fishing. The high returns are ultimately related to favorable at-sea conditions. Some combination of ample food, low predation and low bycatch in the last three to five years brought more alewives to spawning age.

Even though counts and harvests were up in 2017, there are still challenges on the horizon. DMR is concerned about the coastwide river herring population. As well as Maine is doing, southern New England runs are declining. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is planning a blueback herring assessment, separating the two species of river herring to focus on just bluebacks, a species we know little about in Maine. Overall, river herring numbers have been about the same across New England for a decade, but for Maine’s river herring fishermen and fans, things appear to be looking up.