Maine Alewife Harvesters,
by Catherine Schmidt
May has arrived on the coast of Maine. The woods are hazy with black flies and the white blossoms and tender reddish leaves of shadbush. Somewhere close by, a stream fills with a purplish gray blur: the alewives are running.
The bluebacks have returned. The sawbellied river herring are making their way upstream. Color is back, fish are back, and Maine’s alewife fishermen are paying attention.
On North Haven, where oyster farmer Adam Campbell worked with property owners to replace a culvert and reconnect Fresh Pond to Penobscot Bay, the community awaits the return of fish. Last year, Campbell arranged for the Department of Marine Resources’ (DMR) stocking trucks to travel across the bay and fill the pond with adult alewives. If all goes according to plan, the fish spawned and the juveniles went out to sea, hopefully to return in two more years. Campbell tends the pond, watching.
On Seven Mile Stream in Vassalboro, which regained its herring run as part of the larger restoration effort in the Kennebec watershed, harvester Ronald Weeks and his sons keep the channel clear of beaver dams.
In Dresden, Jeffrey Pierce walks Mill Stream as he’s done every day since March, looking for downed trees and other blockages that might get in the way of the migration.
“Harvesters have done a lot of beaver dam removal, and clearing obstructions like old tires and 55 gallon drums,” said Pierce, who also serves as executive director of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine (AHM), the organization of fishermen and towns with active and historic herring fisheries.
Maine is the only state that still has a commercial fishery for alewives and blueback herring (collectively called river herring), which once were harvested along the Atlantic Coast. Maine’s catch goes primarily to lobster bait, with the profits in some cases supporting local municipal services and schools.
“We don’t leave after the harvest is over,” said Pierce. “We keep an eye on our streams. We know the signs that the alewives are arriving—each stream has different circumstances. If no one is paying attention and a stream is blocked for three years [the time it takes for an alewife to grow to adult size and return to freshwater to spawn], that’s the end of the run and people will forget.”
Maine towns and fishermen have joined existing efforts and started their own initiatives to maintain and restore herring runs, including removing barriers to migration, building fish ladders, and promoting clean water. Nearly 2 million river herring have been harvested annually in recent years, with another 1 million estimated to have reached spawning grounds as result of weekly closures on most streams. Harvesters collected scale samples for the DMR, data that helped establish sustainablility of the fishery, in the view of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).
But last August, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list alewife and blueback herring as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In November, NMFS found that the petition presented “substantial scientific information indicating that listing may be warranted,” and began a review of the status of the two species.
With NRDC citing “overharvest” as a factor contributing to the coastwide decline in river herring, Maine’s commercial alewife fishermen spoke out against listing Maine fish.
According to their statement, the AHM “recognize that there are difficulties with river herring populations in other states and provinces north and south of Maine,” but claim “those circumstances do not necessarily influence populations in Maine, where conservation is working.”
The federal agencies do not consider economic impact—such as the economic impact to Maine communities of losing alewife fisheries—when deciding whether or not to list a species as threatened or endangered.
But what happens when an economic activity such as fishing, which is considered a threat, also provides stewardship functions that benefit the species?
According to Kim Damon-Randall, a fishery biologist with the Protected Resources Division of NMFS in Gloucester, Mass., stewardship activities are considered under the Policy for the Evaluation of Conservation Efforts. The policy applies to ongoing or planned “formalized conservation efforts,” defined as “specific actions, activities, or programs designed to eliminate or reduce threats or otherwise improve the status of a species identified in a conservation agreement, conservation plan, management plan, or similar document.”
“It is possible that if the conservation efforts are proven to be effective for reducing or eliminating the risk of extinction for a species, we can determine that a listing is not warranted. We can also consider the loss of these conservation efforts that are ongoing should a listing occur and how that may affect the species,” she said.
Damon-Randall acknowledged that an ESA listing could diminish the will of commercial harvesters to conserve and protect the species, but noted that a listing often brings people together. “In my opinion, there are many conservation groups out there willing to help recover river herring even if they are listed under the ESA, possibly more so following a listing.”
John Waldman, a professor at Queens College who studies the sea-run fish of the Hudson River, agrees that stewardship isn’t necessarily lost if the fisheries close, citing the success of education efforts in his home watershed of the Hudson River.
Waldman has written about the loss of species like alewives and what it means for the collective memory of place. He calls shifting baselines—the idea that society comes to accept a more and more depleted environment as “normal” and less and less relevant—an insidious phenomenon that results from people losing contact with their fisheries.
“It’s not inevitable that we shift the baseline. If we are aware of it and make efforts to compensate for it, we’re not going to forget them,” said Waldman. “I think you in Maine are ahead of other locations that have lost the connection.”
According to Damon-Randall, it is not too late for Maine’s alewife harvesters to submit conservation plans for evaluation. “If harvesters developed plans now to conserve river herring and can show that they have the mechanisms to implement any programs or measures (e.g., authority, funding, etc.), then that could be considered when we make the listing determination.”For now, the harvesters are busy harvesting, watching the streams and counting the fish, hoping for healthy returns.