Plight of the Alewife

March 14, 2011

Since 2002, states along the East Coast have all experienced dramatic declines in river herring populations.  

As a measure of protection towards offsetting this decline, The Department of Environmental Protection today announced that the prohibition on the taking of Alewives and blueback herring from most inland and marine waters of the State of Connecticut has been extended for another year. 

What is an Alewife you ask?  Commonly dubbed River Herring, Sawbelly, Gaspereau, Golden Shad and even Gray Herring, this herring doppelganger’s true identity is well known to latin-speaking marine biologists worldwide: Alosa Pseudoharengus (pseudo “false”, harengus “herring”).

In a side-by-side comparison, you’ll see how similar these species are.  It’s very difficult to separate Alewife from blueback herring without rolling up your sleeves and digging in…literally.  As you can see, the lining of an Alewife is pale to lightly pigmented while that of a blueback’s is jet black.   Interior color notwithstanding, Alewives, like Herring, are eaten fresh, dried, smoked, or fried and their eggs (roe) are considered a delicacy.

Let it be said that humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy a tasty snack in Alewives and Herring.  These river-dwellers constitute a significant food source for indiginous marine gamefish, as well as osprey, bald eagle, harbor seals, porpoise, egrets, kingfishers and river otter.  That’s a big reason why protecting the species is of vital importance.

As the constant reader will know, these fish species are anadromous, which means they hatch in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to grow, then return to freshwater to spawn. 

Historically, millions of river herring returned to Connecticut rivers and streams each year.  In 1985, over 630,000 blueback herring passed over the Holyoke Dam, on the Connecticut River. By 2006, only 21 passed the Holyoke Dam (Massachusetts), the lowest number in the history of the Holyoke Fishlift. Last year that number had risen only to 76.  

While the reasons for these historically low levels (and the methods by which these levels are ascertained) are not fully understood, the importance of protecting river herring runs as a means of conserving the indigenous ecosystem is clear. 

Kudos to the acting DEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette for making inroads to this cause and taking the initiative to extend the fishery closure and long live the good herring!

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