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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Husbands and Wives for Alewives

Air Date: Week of

In Massachusetts, river herring have won a group of human protectors who see them as a critical link in the aquatic food chain. Members of Alewives Anonymous spend their free time clearing the way for the herrings' return from the ocean to their native streams for spawning. Nancy Cohen reports.


CURWOOD: What can a community do to help protect a fish that's in danger of dying out? With a mixture of hard work and humor, some folks in southeastern Massachusetts are saving the alewife, a modest fish that lives in the ocean but breeds in fresh water. Nancy Cohen has the story.

COHEN: Most people who don't live near the coastal streams of the Atlantic haven't heard of river herring. Yet when spring comes and water temperatures rise, the rivers swell with thousands of these fish as they travel inland to spawn. Navigating over rocks and fallen trees, plowing through polluted and pristine waters, alewives and blueback herring, two species known together as river herring, find their way from the vast waters of the Atlantic to the fresh water of their birth. Instinct pulls the herring to the very stream their predecessors journeyed years ago.

(A running stream. Two men speak: "One wrong step and I'll be floating." "Yep.")

COHEN: Dressed in a red flannel shirt and waders, 47-year-old Dave Watling is up to his ribcage in the cold, rushing waters of the Sippican River not far from Cape Cod. Watling is installing an electronic device that counts fish.

(Watling: "Uh oh. Lose a screw?")

COHEN: Watling is vice-president of Alewives Anonymous, a group of mostly men that has a healthy addiction to alewives and blueback herring. The group's mission is to nurture these species that have little direct commercial value but a lot of ecological worth. Arthur Brenner is the group's president.

BRENNER: The herring are a food fish through the chain of all the fish. That's their purpose in life, is to be eaten. And they feed the game fish, the fish in the ponds, the fry, bass, pickeral - everything that's up in the pond will feed on them.

COHEN: River herring are also the basis for a small seasonal economy, as bait fish. Not to be confused with the more palatable sea herring, river herring are eaten by only a few New Englanders. Pickled or smoked, the bony fish is considered by some to be a regional delicacy.

WATLING: This will be the second year we've used the counter, the ladder's been here for several years. The adults probably won't come back here; but the fry that have spawned should come back to this river.

COHEN: Like other waterways supporting herring, the Sippican River is outfitted with a fish ladder, which slows the gushing water and helps the migrating fish up the river's steep incline, over the dam, and into the quiet spawning grounds of Leonard's Pond.

(Calling gulls)

COHEN: Four years ago, Massachusetts' anadromous fish program began to stock this pond with mature fish ready to spawn. It is their offspring that sniff out these particular waters and come home to reproduce every spring. Until the fish ladder was built, Watling recalls how he and his fellow alewifers helped the
fish get over the dam.

WATLING: Three years ago, we dipnetted 500 fish over. Every night after work we'd put the planks in and they'd go in these little pools and we'd dip them out, count them and throw them over in 5-gallon buckets. Took us about 3 weeks to do it.

COHEN: Even in late fall, long after the spawning adults and their offspring return to the ocean, the men of Alewives Anonymous are busy preparing for the following year. With chainsaws in hand, they canoe local rivers, clearing a path for next year's promenade of herring.

WATLING: Just take down blow-down trees and debris that's accumulated. A lot of it's normally discarded trash, sometimes tires, refrigerators, shopping carts or something. The hazards that the fish can't really negotiate that well.

COHEN: Watling says he takes care of these runs simply because he admires the results.

WATLING: I just like watching them; it's like watching a hawk fly, you see the herring come up every year. It's just nice to watch.

(Boys: "Whoa! There's a fish down there!" "Did you bring your fishing pole, Dad?" "Whoa, look at all those fish!")

COHEN: On Easter Sunday, in the nearby town of Middleborough, the Nemaskett River is full of river herring. Sea gulls peer down from above and people gather on the river's edge. Heads bowed, their eyes probing the water.

WOMAN: I just think it's amazing.

MAN: We came down, and all I could think of was you could literally walk across the pool down below there. It was so thick. I said Easter Sunday, walking across the water; here's where you could do it! (Laughs). Believe me, they were so thick.

CHILD: Yesterday, there were so many they were getting pushed up onto the shore. And then, like, they'd flop around for a while and manage to get back in.

COHEN: Erin and her friend Tammy, two 12-year-olds, lie belly-down at the edge of the river. Even though the Nemaskett's fish ladder eases the way for the migrating herring, the 2 girls are determined to literally give the fish a hand. They lean deep into the stream, their fingers plunged into the chilly water. The girls are skilled fishers. When they catch a fish, they run uphill and drop it into the water, just below the pond.

(ERIN OR TAMMY): My brother taught me how to do this with my hands, my older brother. And I think it's really funny 'cause they're only around for a few weeks. And then, like, it's totally dead around here. There's no fish at all, and no seagulls around or anything.

COHEN: Although it's hard to imagine even more fish in this river than there are today, historical records indicate otherwise. Both Native Americans and European settlers relied on the herring as a key source of food, and they were the subject of one of the first colonial laws to protect fish. Even in this century, observers have noticed a decrease in the number of river herring. Sixty-four-year-old Jim Gurney is a member of Alewives Anonymous. He remembers the experiences of an older cousin.

GURNEY: When he was a boy, one of his chores was to lead the farm horses down to the brook to water them, then they didn't have to haul water. During herring season, when the herring were running, he used to have to go into the brook and scare the fish away, but else the horses would not drink the water. There was just too many fish in it.

COHEN: Are there that many fish now?

GURNEY: No, nowhere near. Nothing of that nature. Nowhere near. Not even close.

COHEN: Today herring compete for water with local neighborhoods and nearby cranberry bogs. Some runs have disappeared entirely. But there is hope. Other runs are either steady or reviving, especially those where herring enthusiasts lend a hand.

(Men: "Does that look level to you?" "Yep. I'd say that's pretty close.")

COHEN: For Living on Earth, this is Nancy Cohen near Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.



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