River herring

The Rise of the River Herring

River herring

Hold a single alewife or blueback herring in your hand, and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Silvery and skinny, these so-called “forage fish” are often only as long as a cell phone. Impressive specimens might reach the size of a flip flop.

But if you head to certain parts of New England in the spring, you’ll quickly discover that whatever these fish lack in stature, they surely make up for in tenacity, resiliency and showmanship. For centuries, people have crowded certain stream banks to watch — and catch — these little fish as they charge upstream, often in glittering schools ten thousand strong.

"There’s nothing in the world like seeing this,” says Deb Wilson, who helps lead a massive community effort to restore a 200-year-old fish ladder in the village of Damariscotta Mills, Maine. “It's almost gleeful, the way they just zip up through the water. Everybody thinks they’re struggling, but they’re not. They’re full of energy.”

With the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wilson and her colleagues are putting the finishing touches on the restoration project. A NFWF grant enabled the town add smooth, natural stone surfaces to the 1,500-foot, man-made passage, an enhancement that protects the herring as they scramble up the 42-foot vertical climb.

The herring, it seems, approve of the upgrades. Over the past few years, more and more silver fish have climbed through the center of the village, leaping up through a series of 68 pools and eventually arriving at their spawning grounds in Damariscotta Lake. Their numbers often peak during the village’s annual Fish Festival in May, when thousands of local and visitors from around the world swamp the tiny town to revel in one of the nature’s most impressive spectacles.

An all-American fish

Alewives and blueback herring, similar species collectively referred to as “river herring,” are born in freshwater but spend most of their lives at sea. Every spring, adults make their way from offshore waters into coastal estuaries from New England through the Carolinas. Hard-wired to advance upstream to spawn, river herring run up freshwater rivers, launching through rapids and over rocks, funneling by the thousands into smaller and smaller streams.

The herring are bound for inland lakes, where they gather in massive spawning aggregations. Once completing this critical mission, they head back to sea, falling backward along the same route with their heads still pointed into the current. Months later, in the summer and fall, their offspring will make the same journey to the ocean.

While at sea, river herring play a key role in the marine food web, supporting commercially and recreationally important species such as tuna, mackerel and billfish. Their push inland each spring sends a massive pulse of life through coastal ecosystems, historically reaching more than 100 miles inland. Eagles, ospreys, herons, striped bass, bluefish, flounder and a host of other animals coming off a hard winter depend on the nutritional boost provided by these water-borne packets of protein.

This annual journey also pumps waves of fish through the hearts of many human communities in the Northeast. The resulting bonds between herring and human reach back through time, from modern day fish-run festivals to the smokehouses of the early 20th century and subsistence fisheries of early European settlers and Native Americans.

“Even when it was about food, it was always a community activity,” says Jeffrey Pierce, executive director of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine. “It just made more sense for people to work together to get the fish. So people came from all over to these spring runs, and they got to find out what happened over the winter, who died and who was born — that kind of thing."

This streamside comradery lives on in Maine, with lobstermen still congregating each spring at the state’s remaining runs to catch their allotment of river herring – which many say make the best baits for lobster traps.

“You might see 50 guys standing around and talking to each other, seeing how the winter went,” Pierce says. “They’ll talk about fishing, but they’re also talking about their kids’ soccer games and everything else.”

Management of river herring has varied widely over the centuries, and New England's history is peppered with conflicts that arose when one community’s dam building or fishing activities disrupted the run of herring to other towns. Some runs were “owned” by individuals, while other runs were managed by towns. Some New England communities built special fish ladders that diverted massive numbers of herring from natural streams into holding pools, where they could be more easily dip-netted.

So it went in Damariscotta Mills. Settled in 1729, this picturesque community in coastal Maine originally operated a saw mill between Damariscotta Lake and the tidal headwaters of the Damariscotta River. The mill blocked river herring from reaching the lake, and by the 1740s, local leaders who recognized the herring’s importance were calling for a solution. By 1807, a “new stream” had been built around the mill.

This man-made run at Damariscotta Mills funneled massive numbers of fish right through the heart of the village, providing an ideal platform for more than two centuries of subsistence and commercial harvest of river herring. Generations of families were tied to the harvest in one way or another, whether through dip-netting, working in fish houses and smoke houses, or by simply enjoying the spectacle.

Some of the herring were destined for smokehouses and local dinner plates. Others were transported to the coast for lobster bait. Countless others were salted, stored in barrels and shipped overseas as food.

By the mid-20th century, the river herring’s close association with people had taken a heavy toll. Overfishing, the construction of dams, pollution and bycatch in offshore trawl fisheries had combined to decimate the once-mighty runs. By 2008, the river herring were in real trouble, with declines of more than 95 percent since the mid-1980s.

NFWF’s River Herring Program

In 2009, with the backing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NFWF launched a 10-year River Herring Program aimed at achieving a 300-percent increase in abundance in key rivers on the East Coast.

NFWF and a wide array of partners and grant recipients from Maine through South Carolina began to focus on four key strategies:

  • Restoring access to and improving management of key spawning and nursery habitats
  • Promoting sustainable river herring fisheries in key rivers
  • Determining and reducing bycatch of river herring in ocean fisheries
  • Implementing stock assessments and conducting genetic analysis of river herring

NFWF grants helped scientists at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth complete a survey of river herring bycatch in ocean fisheries, and then develop and implemented a bycatch avoidance system. Working with willing commercial trawl captains, researchers pinpoint hotspots of river herring bycatch so the fleet can steer clear, thereby avoiding possible fishing closures.

“To the captains, the bycatch seemed random and intermittent,” says Pierce, whose group helped rally support for the program. “But in reality, a couple of bad tows could wipe out a town’s entire run. When you talk to them about that, they get it.

“So now, if a boat gets into a hotspot, and they’re getting a high amount of bycatch in their first tow, they call it in and it gets marked on this grid system. Then the fleet avoids that area for a couple of days.  It’s really been a great program.

“Some of the fishermen don’t like it, but most agree with it. They know it’s in their best interests, and the fish’s best interests. As commercial fishermen, if we don’t work with our managers, our scientists and other fisheries, we’re all going to be closed.”

In the Chesapeake Bay, where very little was known about river herring populations, NFWF grants enabled scientists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to deploy state-of-the-art, multi-beam sonar units that “filmed” the passage of fish through murky tributaries of the bay.

“This type of sonar technology was really probably the only way to get good estimates on spawning run sizes,” says Matthew Ogburn, a Smithsonian research associate working on the project. “With traditional methods like netting and electrofishing, it’s hard to be out there sampling enough, especially considering the periodic timing of the run.

“There are huge pulses of fish over very short time periods, and that’s very important in counting the run. On the Choptank River, in our first year, there was a run that was probably 300,000 to 400,000 fish. About 100,000 came by in just four hours, another 100,000 in a couple of hours the next day. The rest of the fish were spread out over a month and a half.

“Having the sonar out there, recording 24-7, allows us to capture that.”

NFWF’s River Herring Program has invested more than $5 million through 37 grants. With grantee matches of more than $4.7 million, the program has generated a total of approximately $8 million for river herring conservation.

These efforts are paying off; river herring populations have begun to climb again in New England.

This remarkable story of resilience and recovery is celebrated at Damariscotta Mills every spring, when the famed fish ladder is once again paved in silver.

"We went from getting 80,000 a few years ago to over a million,” says Deb Wilson, the fish-ladder restoration director. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ll watch these fish come up into the bay, circle around in huge pods, then head up under a railroad bridge and start up the run.

“Sometimes someone who hasn’t seen it before will look down and say, ‘I can’t see any fish -- where are the fish?’ It's because all they're seeing is fish. They can’t differentiate between water and fish, there are so many.

“It’s a sight to see.” 

Contact: Matt Winter 202-857-0166