Alewives, a Sure Sign of Spring

By Barbara Brennessel, author of The Alewives’ Tale: The Life History and Ecology of River Herring in the Northeast

In New England, the arrival of river herring is a sure sign of spring.  But spring has been slow to arrive this year.  Even though snow was still on the ground, volunteer herring counters were getting ready. In Wellfleet, our herring count workshop on March 19 drew a good crowd; most were seasoned herring counters but we were lucky to recruit some new volunteers. We reviewed the protocols and volunteers signed up for various time slots. There was considerable excitement among audience members as we reviewed the results of the last six years of volunteer counts and discussed our plans for a major restoration project.  Derrick Alcott, a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts explained his PhD project in which he would be tracking the movements of herring through the Chequessett Neck Dike and into our Herring River.  This Dike, which prevents tidal flow, and may act as an impediment to river herring, is the focus of the restoration project.

At the end of April, our local herring warden, Ethan Estey, led a group of AmeriCorps volunteers down the Herring River.  Wearing waders and winter gear, they walked down the river to clear any debris that blocked water flow.  The river itself was not easily accessible for our volunteers because snow drifts, up to four feet in some places, lined the banks. We were fortunate that Derrick had to install tracking equipment at various locations along the river before the herring arrived, so he shoveled a path to our counting site. The snow removal revealed vegetation, mostly briars and vines, remnants of last summer, all along the path.  My husband Nick and I used hand tools to clear the underbrush, forming a narrow path that would allow access for the volunteers who were scheduled to count fish. We were all ready for the herring to arrive.

But in Wellfleet, and other locations in Massachusetts, volunteer herring counters spent many days staring at the water without seeing a single fish.  Finally, a few sightings put everyone on alert.  Even though the call, “The herring are running,” was a week or two later than usual in some locations, the fish arrived at last.

Thousands of the silvery fish were the main attraction at the second annual River Herring Festival in Middleborough on April 11.  Children lined up along the banks of the Nemasket River at Oliver Mills Park.   The braver ones attempted to catch the fish with their bare hands…the children that were successful squealed in delight as the fish squirmed out of their small hands and dove back into the river.

Last week, river herring were spotted in Wellfleet’s Herring River. The water is starting to warm up. On April 19, I saw my first fish in Wellfleet.  We should continue to see river herring (alewives and bluebacks) in Wellfleet, on a regular basis until late in May.  So, until Memorial Day, I will be watching the river with other dedicated volunteer herring counters to see how our river herring are f9781625341051aring.


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