The first column I wrote for The East Hampton Star was in March of 1981. It was about Alosa pseudogarengus, the alewife, of the now-threatened river herrings. As far as Long Island post-Columbian history is concerned, the alewife ranks right up there with the quahog, steamer clam, bay scallop, oyster, and right whale. It was, perhaps, the only catadromous fish — one that leaves salt water to breed in fresh water — the first settlers could count on, as our streams and ponds were too small for the likes of the Atlantic salmon, which bred in New England rivers.
Although I spent my first 22 years on the North Fork and was well versed in the marine and freshwater fishes found there, I knew nothing of the alewife until I came back to teach field biology at Southampton College in the fall of 1974. At that time the resident ichthyologist, Howard Reisman, took me here and there to show me the fauna of the South Fork, which turned out to be much richer than that which I had experienced in my boyhood days across the bay.
Big Fresh Pond in North Sea was one of those spots to which I was introduced. In September of that year I took my class to Big Fresh to seine. We caught the usual freshwater fish — largemouth bass, pumpkinseeds, yellow perch, bullheads, and American eels — all of which I was familiar with from my earlier days fishing Maratooka and Laurel Lakes on the North Fork. But we also caught several small fish of a species I hadn’t a clue about, young-of-the-year alewives on their way downstream and thence out to the Peconic Estuary by way of North Sea Harbor.
It turns out that at that time Big Fresh Pond, one of the largest kettlehole ponds on the South Fork, was the only significant alewife breeding body of water left on Long Island. Yes, dribs and drabs still bred in other Long Island fresh waters such as those ponds attached to the Peconic River, Long Pond south of Sag Harbor, Jeremy’s Hole at the north end of Sagg Swamp in Sagaponack, Scoy Pond in East Hampton’s Northwest, Georgica Pond in Wainscott, and Big Reed and Stepping Stone Ponds in Montauk. During the prolonged drought of the 1960s, most of the overflow streams from these other ponds dried up, or the culverts running under them became clogged or were too small. Big Fresh was one of the few ponds that were still able to accommodate a good stock of sea-run alewives from year to year.
In the early spring of 1975 Howard took me to the spot where the mature alewives in spawning condition would mass at the foot of Northwest Harbor, where it meets the freshwater stream at a large culvert under Noyac Road. Fishermen, including Shinnecock, were lined with hand nets to catch some of them. I was told that the roe was good and the fish tasty when smoked. From that time on I became a fan of alewife and looked for it each year thereafter right up until the present.
Not only was the Atlantic Coast alewife population suffering throughout the latter half of the 20th century, but the other river herrings, the shad, and blueback herring, in particular, were also waning in numbers. This drop-off became alarming to the point that by the beginning of the 21st century the National Marine Fisheries Service and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began to take steps to protect these species. Locally, the Southampton Town Trustees, the owners and managers of the town’s freshwaters, and the overseers of the largest alewife breeding population in the state took the most dramatic steps of all to save the species — they banned fishing for it in the waters they control.
It’s ironic that the two fish species in our waters that breed the earliest each year — the winter flounder and the alewife — should suffer the biggest population falloffs. Their plight is certainly not due to overfishing; it must be tied to environmental conditions. While we scratch our heads about what to do about the flounder, there are things we can do about the alewife, and projects are under way throughout Long Island to return the alewife to its former status.
The most successful of these can be found where the Peconic River runs into the Peconic Estuary in Riverhead at Grangibel Park. Much time, money, and effort have been expended by a consortium of forces to resurrect that population. So-called fish ladders have been installed to facilitate the upstream movement of the alewife. A video camera counting system keeps track of the alewives as they move through the fish ladders into the river. East Hampton, Brookhaven, and other Long Island municipalities are participating with a group at Seatuck in Islip to help the alewives make it back.
The Southampton Town Trustees, an elected body dating back to the 1600s when Southampton Town was first settled, have not only acted to protect the alewife on paper, in the last week of February they got together in the field to modify the culvert under North Sea Road, the second of two culverts the gravid alewives have to forge before reaching Big Fresh Pond. Because of a seasonally low flow of water running out from the culvert last spring it was difficult for the alewives to get over the lip of the concrete apron leading into the culvert, and some of them had to be helped.
The trustees acted just in the nick of time. The work was done last Thursday and Friday. Saturday morning I received a call from Trustee Fred Havemeyer. Alewives had just arrived and had already made it upstream to the reconditioned culvert. Less than an hour later, Howard Reisman, somewhat in disbelief as heretofore alewives had never arrived before the second week in March, took a look. Yes, indeed, the great alewife migration was under way. It’s been a nonwinter winter. Will it turn out to be a non-spring spring? That is the question.