We arrived at the town dock, where the stream meets the bay, ready to see a locally famous fish fight its way upstream. A seal stared curiously at the terrestrial crowd gathering at the dock between underwater hunts for these copious fish. A loon dived repetitively seeking the same feast.
A small gathering of 50+ year-old locals composed of fishermen, writers, volunteers, and otherwise committed folks began to gather in the dense cool drizzle of a late May morning on the coast of Maine. After a few words about the power of community and the story of these fish, the group split in two: one that would travel along the streamside and the other that would take the less slippery, longer path. The groups converged under a large cement culvert that had blocked these thousands of fish from continuing upstream since its construction. The water below the culvert boiled with fish swimming together to reach their spawning grounds upstream. We watched as countless fish swam nearly to the top of the rocks, then were washed back to where they started, unable to pass this human obstruction.
Meanwhile, an assembly line formed across the small falls (small to us!) as people took fishing nets, scooped up heaps of fish, and passed them through the hands that guided them up past the culvert, releasing them ever closer to where they might reproduce upstream. Hundreds of fish must have been supported during less than an hour. While that effort could hardly aid all the fish fighting to pass the culvert, surely these humans attempting to right the mistakes of their ancestors made a bit of a difference to these perseverant fish.
Alewives, Alosa pseudoharengus, are a river herring native along the Atlantic seaboard, historically found from Newfoundland to Florida. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to the rivers to spawn. This mass migration provides an important piece of our ecological puzzle; they provide a more diverse diet for a variety of creatures at just the right point in the season. They are also used for bait during the spring lobstering season.
Alewives were heavily fished and eaten by humans before refrigeration became widely accessible due to their ability to be easily stored by salting or smoking. Once other species of fish became more accessible due to improved transportation and able to be stored in a refrigerator, the demand for alewives decreased. However, as rivers became more polluted and dams were built on the majority of rivers–blocking access for these fish to reach their spawning grounds–their populations declined. Efforts to remove dams and construct culverts differently to allow fish passage are helping their populations, but much more work must be done to make our waterways obstruction-free.
For more information on alewives and the efforts to help their populations, check out these websites: