River Herring Populations Teetering on the Brink

State environmental officials warn that seemingly strong alewife and blueback herring spawning this spring could be illusory.

Forget the recent headlines suggesting that there is no decline in the numbers of alewives, the precious little forage fish that, along with its lookalike blueback herring cousin, underpins the marine food pyramid.

Alewives swarming up local rivers to spawn in recent weeks have inspired talk that the fish are as plentiful as in the past, but the runs are deceptive. To the contrary, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is investigating whether to afford protection to the alewife and blueback herring, together called river herring, under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). A determination on whether to propose classification of the fish as ‘threatened” under the act may be made as early as this autumn.

“There is no evidence yet that there is a better alewife run than normal,” says Steve Gephard, veteran fisheries biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP).

Low water has made fish more evident and warm weather not only triggered the run almost a month early but probably brought more people to waterside to see the fish as they moved up from the sea. An accurate assessment of the alewife run cannot be made until another month or more passes, says Gephard, who also notes that blueback herring begin spawning runs in May. Low water, due to lack of rain, may impede upstream traffic of the river herrings, says Gephard. Beaver are building dams to raise water levels, creating another potential barrier, he adds.

The decline of river herring has been long in the making. River herring hatch upstream but mature in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast, where they spend most of their lives. A classic tome on fisheries published in 1953, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, notes that when Europeans arrived in New England, a stream without a river herring run was rare. Sharp declines in spawning runs were noted as far back as the 1940s. By the 20th century runs of millions of fish were a memory.

Connecticut and other states have restored riverine habitat and built fish ladders to shepherd fish around dams and other barriers to their spawning runs. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are among the states that have closed river herring fisheries, even though there seems to be a fair number of alewives returning. The problem is that alewives and blueback herring are virtually identical, so that even if one recovers, both species must be protected. For years, virtually the only way to tell them apart was fatal, cutting them open to examine the stomach lining. Blueback herring recovery efforts on the Connecticut River seem to have snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory. Improvements resulted in more than 630,000 blueback herring counted in 1985 at the Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River. In 2006, only 21 fish passed the dam while last year the total was a paltry 138.

The threat to river herring seems to stem from factors far beyond state borders, in the open sea. Offshore, the fish are under federal jurisdiction, and have received minimal protection. That may be changing. In March, a federal judge in the nation’s capital ruled in favor of litigation by a coalition of sports fishermen and conservationists and ordered the NMFS to initiate more protection for river herrings. Last August, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the NMFS to have river herring listed as “threatened” under the ESA. Listing would afford the fish afford stringent federal protection intended to promote their recovery.

Many conservation groups claim that the bycatch of river herring taken offshore by industrial-scale trawlers fishing for Atlantic herring is decimating mature river herring populations. These ships can be up to 200 feet long and sweep up an entire herring run in a single net. The bycatch is most significant in winter, when herring school with Atlantic herring and mackerel. However, a study published in 2008 by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries suggested that, while significant, the bycatch alone is not responsible for the plight of river herring.

Whatever the root cause of the decline, it will take combined action by coastal states and the federal government, from upstream spawning grounds to offshore feeding areas, to restore healthy river herring populations. River herring, which reach a length of about 10 inches, are a prime prey of myriad other animals. They have been an important source of fish and lobster bait, and the list of their predators includes striped bass, tuna, whales, osprey, bald eagles, otters and — especially when smoked or pickled — people.


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