Work has been under way this year on the South Fork to clear debris from streams in the hope of increasing the population of alewives, an oceangoing fish that spawns in freshwater. These efforts are extremely important, not just for the species, but for improving the overall health of our treasured ecosystems.
Historically, alewives were thought to have spawned in nearly every pond here they could reach, rushing up rivers and streams in early spring. Now their runs are limited to a few places, and poor water quality, physical obstructions, and overfishing have hurt their numbers. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation considers the alewife a species “of concern.” Fishing for them is prohibited in several states.
Like menhaden, alewives are a key prey species for larger and more commercially and recreationally sought fish, such as striped bass. They are also food for herons and other birds that lurk along the migratory streams. The fish that don’t survive and don’t get picked off by predators sink to the bottom of their spawning ponds and, as they decompose, release carbon and nutrients to replace those lost as waters flow to the sea.
Public officials and citizens whose properties border ponds and streams should find out what they can do to help. Restoring the alewife should be a goal all of us can get behind.