Public-private teamwork helps save Connecticut's threatened alewives

The once-abundant fish have played a big role in Connecticut's development. But now they need help to reach their freshwater spawning grounds.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
A double-crested cormorant surfaces after catching an alewife on Damariscotta Lake in Newcastle, Maine. The fish are a valuable food source for shore birds and fish species such as striped bass and bluefish in New England. In Connecticut, a coalition of groups is providing fish ladders to help the alewives travel up its rivers to spawn.

For Connecticut’s threatened alewives, cooperation between state government and private organizations means one more rung on the fish ladder to success.

“We are all linking arms to form an alliance to help the fish rebound,” says Gregg Dancho, director at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Conn.

Mr. Dancho recently stood on the banks of the Pequonnock River with a large net in hand. The river, which runs near the zoo, was low because of a dry spell. He and a team of volunteers scooped up nearly 2,000 of the fish, helped them over the fish ladder, and sent them on their way upstream.

The zoo is just one of several groups working with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to build fish ladders and count fish. Of the 56 fish ladders across the state, only 12 of them have electric counters.

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This fall Dancho hopes to add a $15,000 electric counter and video camera to the ladder near the zoo. A grant from another private group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, would help defray the cost, he says.

If visual counts, like the one at Beardsley Zoo, or electric counts, like the one at the Mianus Dam fishway, are any indication, Connecticut’s alewives are running stronger than they have in years.

For example, one fish way in East Lyme, Conn., reported more than 3,600 fish so far. Normally it averages around 2,500 fish a season. However, it’s too soon to know whether this signifies a comeback for the threatened fish, says Stephen Gephard, a biologist with DEEP.

“This year is the first encouraging sign that things might be getting better. Generally we scientists need at least three years to see that this is not just a flash in the pan,” Mr. Gephard says.

What isn’t a flash in the pan is the public-private cooperation, Gephard says. That’s necessary since there has “never been a line in the budget that allows us to go out and build fish ways,” he says.

Alewives, also known as river herring, spend most of their lives in saltwater. However, dams, temperature changes, and possible overharvesting of Atlantic herring mean the once abundant fish can’t reach their freshwater spawning grounds. In 2002 Connecticut became the first of four states to close its alewife fisheries.

The alewife population has waxed and waned for centuries.

The first significant drop-off happened during the Industrial Revolution. Sometime in the mid-1980s the numbers surged only to dramatically decline in the 1990s. The reasons for this drop-off are murky, Gephard says.

“We know it’s marine in origin because states from Maine to the Carolinas are seeing a problem. The problem may be inadvertent scooping up of alewives in the Atlantic herring fisheries,” Gephard says.

The alewife is delicious smoked, say some fishmongers. But they are also the preferred meal for many predators, including ospreys, cormorants, striped bass, and bluefish. These animals have only recently returned to Connecticut’s rivers.

“People come from all over to watch this nature. People are coming to Bridgeport – a city! – to watch the fish and see ospreys and cormorants,” Dancho says.

More fish ladders and better fish runs help connect people to the environment. People are more likely to support local land trusts or conservation groups when they see the effects of returning ponds to their natural state, says Gephard. 

Across Connecticut numerous Alewife Streets and Alewives Lanes honor the shiny, silver fish. Long ago taverns and pubs here regularly served river herring. And while one might be hard pressed to find alewives on a menu today, a strong alewife population benefits other fish stocks.

Another consequence of the public-private partnerships is increased awareness of the role alewives played in Connecticut history.

“A lot of people don’t realize how critically important these fish runs were to the colonization of our area. A lot of these coastal towns developed because of alewives,” Gephard says. “They are part and parcel of the history of many towns. So by bringing them back we are restoring a little bit of the history of these towns.”

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