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The Stubborn Staying Power of the Alewife Herring 3-16-17

The Stubborn Staying Power of the Alewife Herring
By DAVE TAFT MARCH 16, 2017
New York Times

Among the rich natural resources that attracted humans to New York's harbor was a small migratory fish the colonists called the alewife or sawbelly. As these river herring crowded into spawning creeks every spring, they were noted by the earliest French Jesuits, Dutch trappers and English settlers, and were caught and consumed with abandon by Native Americans and colonists alike.

Alewives are bony, tasty, nutritious and relatively easy to preserve; and, in colonial times, they were abundant. The fish could be eaten by humans or fed to pigs or other livestock. It is highly likely that the famous agricultural mentoring between Squanto, a Patuxet native to what is now Massachusetts, and the pilgrims memorializes yet another less obvious use of herring: as fertilizer for the colonists' inaugural crops.

Middens and hearths excavated throughout the Northeast are filled with the bones and scales of herring dinners past. But as human settlements grew, both the value and limits of this communal resource became obvious. Alewives were protected by the first known fishery regulations in North America, which date to 1623 in Plymouth Colony. Over time, net sizes, harvest schedules and set locations, as well as catch limits, were all strictly regulated in order to protect these valuable fish.

Some of the early regulations even prohibit the obstruction of rivers, which would have prevented the passage of alewives. However, as the need for energy kept pace with the human population, dams were built throughout the coastal waterways, and this rampant construction brought on the long decline of Alosa pseudoharengus and many other migratory fish species.

It is easy to love alewives. Silvery and streamlined, they can reach a foot or more in length on a diet of plankton. They are determined and stubborn, but their tireless upstream journeys increasingly ended at the dams and obstructions of human industry. Herring are tenacious and resolute; they can be surprisingly difficult to eradicate. Humans, however, have come close to finishing them off.

The installation of the first dams on the Bronx River in the late 1600s swiftly severed the alewives' connection to the Bronx River above what is now 182nd Street. Large schools of alewives disappeared, and the herring were largely forgotten for decades. An initiative to reintroduce these silvery fish into the river gained a good deal of notoriety when 201 fish were captured in Connecticut and released in the Bronx River on March 21, 2006. This was followed by an introduction of 400 fish the next year.

When subsequent monitoring efforts recaptured fish that were considerably older than the initial introduction could have produced, researchers concluded that a small but critical population of wild herring had survived decades to spawn in the 21st century Bronx River.

Henry David Thoreau, an admirer of river herrings, might have found all the excitement over a handful of herring depressing, but the 2015 opening of a fish ladder, or fishway, at the 182nd Street dam, designed to give alewives an easier passage through the Bronx River for the first time in hundreds of years, might have given him cause to smile, and hope.

From Forum

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