Hopeful signs for CT river herring: Threatened alewives, blueback herring may be on rebound, but it's too early to tell for sure
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012
By Mark Zaretsky, Register Staff
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Alewives in the Pequonnock River in Bridgeport near the fish ladder. Mara Lavitt/New Haven Register 4/27/12
It’s a bit too early in alewife and blueback herring spawning season and too many questions remain for river watchers to call the remarkable herring runs they’re seeing in some parts of the state this year a comeback, or even the start of one.
PHOTOS: Beardsley Zoo director helps alewives reach the Pequonnock River fish ladder
But so far this spring, they’re seeing some hopeful signs, as threatened alewives and the even more acutely threatened bluebacks — known collectively as river herring — make their annual runs from Long Island Sound up Connecticut rivers to wherever their remarkable genes tell them are their spawning grounds.
“Alewives and blueback herring have been on a long decline,” and, a number of years ago in Connecticut, “we were the first of four states to close down the fisheries” to protect them, said Stephen Gephard, a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wildlife biologist.
This year, however, the alewives “are running like crazy, but only between the Thames and the Connecticut River,” said Gephard, supervisor of the DEEP Inland Fisheries Division’s Diadromous Fish Program and Habitat and Conservation Enhancement Program in Old Lyme.
“The ones east of there and west of there, just so-so,” he said.
A perfect illustration of that point came Thursday, when Gephard went to the new Harry Haakonsen Fishway at Wallace Dam on the Quinnipiac River in Wallingford.
During nearly an hour at and inside an observation area alongside the fish ladder, which a private organization working with the DEEP, Save the Sound of New Haven, just had installed opposite the old Wallace Silversmiths mill using federal grant money, not one alewife swam by.
As it turns out, river herring, which took their most recent huge hit in Connecticut between 2006 and 2007, but had been declining for years before then, are pretty temperature-sensitive critters. So after a few cool days and a couple of really cool nights that lowered the water temperature by a few degrees, they just weren’t that active, Gephard said.
The run of the even more troubled bluebacks, which tends to happen a few weeks later, is just beginning, so it’s definitely too soon to make any pronouncements on their behalf, Gephard said. Continued...
All the counting and theorizing is complicated a bit by the combination of an early spring and a drought. Researchers can’t be sure whether the large runs are just early runs or runs of fish diverted from other streams that they get up because they don’t have enough water, Gephard said.
Most years, the alewives run from early April through May and the bluebacks run from May through June, but this year, “a lot of the alewives started in March, and we’re already seeing fully spawned-out alewives leaving,” he said.
Plus, “this is a schooling fish and they run at night,” Gephard said. So, “it’s premature to make conclusions that alewives are having a great year throughout the state of Connecticut.”
But if it turns out to be true, this is not entirely a mistake or product of luck or divine providence.
The DEEP, private groups such as Save the Sound and local groups and volunteers statewide have worked hard over the years to build fish ladders to help alewives and other fish get back to spawning grounds that, in many cases, they were cut off from 100 or more years ago.
At places like Mill Brook in Old Lyme and Bride Brook and Latimer Brook in East Lyme, alewives most definitely are running hot and heavy this spring, and there are hopeful signs well west of there, as well, at least one located in one of the state’s biggest and most densely populated cities.
Even before this year, numbers have been rising in recent years.
Bride Brook, which seems to be alewife Ground Zero in Connecticut, nearly broke 200,000 fish counted last year — 196,996 — up more than 20 percent over 2010’s 164,149 fish and way ahead of the 66,975 counted in 2007, when numbers dropped nearly in half from the 129,114 counted in 2006.
The Branford Supply Ponds Fishway on Queach Brook in Branford, where a fish ladder equipped with an automatic counter opened in 2006, had its best year yet last year, counting 9,080 alewives, up from 1,239 in 2010 and a previous high of 3,477 in 2009.
But so far this year, with water levels low, its numbers are down, fish watchers say. Continued...
Other key river herring counting spots include the Mianus River in Greenwich and the Greeneville Dam fishlift on the Shetucket River in Norwich. The fish that make the runs generally are three to four years old and 10 to 12 inches long, Gephard said.
Whether the alewives are making a comeback —and how big of a comeback it is, if in fact that’s the case — is an important question because the alewife is an important food source for many different land and marine animals, including striped bass, bluefish, otters, sea birds and others, including eagles that have returned to Connecticut rivers in recent years.
But alewife numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years for reasons that researchers don’t fully understand, said Gephard, who also is Connecticut’s representative on the technical committee of the four-state Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission.
While the reason is not known for certain, the two major theories are that the drop in alewife runs is linked in some way to the recovery of the rather voracious — and alewife-loving — striped bass; and development in recent years of a new offshore fishery for Atlantic herring — particularly the rise of a new kind of fishing technique called “paired mid-water trawls,” in which two boats “would actually haul this gigantic net” across an area and catch whatever is in it, Gephard said.
“A lot of people thought that (alewives) were taken as a bi-catch and not recorded,” he said. “The trouble was, there was no data.”
In more recent years, it’s starting to look more like the mid-water trawls might be responsible, “but at this point, I have to say that both are still theories and it’s hard to say which has caused the decline,” Gephard said.
When Gephard talks about this stuff, a lot of people listen.
That’s because Gephard is pretty much the big tuna when it comes to Connecticut fish watchers.
While on paper he may be a supervisor within the DEEP’s Bureau of Natural Resources, to the many researchers and fish-watchers, both paid and volunteer, involved in the effort to revive the river herring population, he is more than that.
“Gephard is a legend in the river restoration world for the work that he has done here in Connecticut,” said Tom Cleveland, a volunteer at the Branford Supply Ponds Fishway. Cleveland led the Branford Land Trust’s project to create the fishway, which finally opened in 2006. Continued...
The Branford fish ladder, because of low water levels caused by drought, is one of the ones that so far is not seeing any increase in alewives this year.
By Friday, it’s automatic counter — installed when the Branford Land Trust-led project was completed — had counted just 300 or so fish last week, where “we were clicking along at a couple of thousand fish” last year, Cleveland said.But luckily, all the really hot alewife action this year isn’t just between those two big rivers east of Greater New Haven.
On the Pequonnock River near Bunnell’s Pond in Bridgeport, volunteers are practically shoveling alewives around a fish ladder that New Haven-based Save the Sound installed a few years ago to help them get back to their spawning grounds.
That’s because there are too many thousands to all go through it at once. They’ve gotten caught in a few traffic jams, said Greg Dancho, director at Beardsley Zoo, who has led a net-wielding brigade of people, both volunteers and paid staff, that has taken to helping the herring get where they need to go.
“The fish get caught in a pool next to the ladder. Sometimes a run is so big that they can’t get up the ladder,” Dancho said. “We went in a couple of weeks ago, we had maybe 5,000 fish trapped up here. We were able to save maybe 2,000 of them.”
The makeshift alewife aid corps has included DEEP staffers, zoo staff and interns, and even Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, Dancho said.The fishway, recently equipped with a Save the Sound-supplied remote camera, “is right here by the zoo and we’re able to go out almost on a daily basis,” Dancho said.
“The wonderful thing about this is, because the zoo is here and we’re a conservation organization, we can take kids out here” and use it for an educational opportunity for the kids, who also can “stand around and watch osprey play in this pond every day,” Dancho said.
Call Mark Zaretsky at 203-789-5722. Follow us on Twitter @nhregister or @markzar.
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