Hows the Water

By Patricia Aitken, Executive Director

January 23, 2012

Friends of the Bay, in cooperation with the Long Island Sound Study, Department of Environmental Conservation and the Seatuck Environmental Center will be conducting a training session for alewife monitoring on Tuesday, February 12 from 7:00 to 8:00 pm in the Friends of the Bay offices at 111 South Street, Oyster Bay.

What is an alewife? Alewives (also called river herring) are small fish, growing up to 16 inches long and weighing less than half a pond. Their small size belies their importance in the ecosystem. Alewives provide for river otters, seals and other marine mammals, birds such as cormorants, ospreys, herons and eagles and other fish including bass, trout and cod. Alewives support both commercial and recreational fisheries. In the South, they are a regional delicacy. Further north, they are used as bait for lobster traps and are valued as bait for striped bass.

Populations are in serious decline along the Atlantic Coast. Management of the population is complicated, since river herring begin life in headwater creeks managed by state inland fisheries agencies. They then migrate to coastal waters controlled by state marine fisheries agencies. Juvenile alewives move into offshore waters managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, where they mix with Atlantic (sea) herring, a separate species. When mature, river herring retrace their route across jurisdictions to spawn in their home rivers.

Alewife populations are in serious decline. Over the past 20 years, some historic alewife runs (when the fish are returning to their home waters to spawn) have declined by 95% or more. Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island have banned harvests of river herring, with zero tolerance policies for recreational and commercial fishing. In 2006 they were designated a Species of Concern by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Alewive populations are further reduced due to the number of them caught as bycatch by commercial trawlers.

On Long Island, alewife populations have declined also and this aspect of our natural heritage has been largely forgotten. Efforts are underway to restore alewives by providing access to historical spawning grounds that have been lost due to barriers to migration. Plans are underway to modify impassable culverts, remove obsolete dams, or install fish ladders and other passage structures to help fish reach valuable spawning habitat. These projects will benefit not only alewives, but will assist other fish species such as trout, or mammals like river otters. Key fish passage projects were completed in dams in the Peconic River and Massapequa Creek. Friends of the Bay is developing projects at Beekman Creek and Beaver Lake.

If you are interested in learning more about alewives, and think you might be interested in monitoring them and assisting in documenting populations, come to the training! Please respond to either Kelly Hines Leo at 631-444-0441 (kxhines@gw.dec.state.ny.us) or Patricia Aitken at 516-922-6666 (p.aitken@friendsofthebay.org).

****************************************

Friends of the Bay鈥檚 water quality monitoring season ended on October 22. Water quality data collected by our citizen scientists is posted on the Friends of the Bay website at http://friendsofthebay.org/?page_id=1151. The season will resume on April 1, 2013.