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On Their Way Home

Posted on 13 April 2012

Ligonee Creek in Sag Harbor is one of the routes alewives have taken to reach spawning grounds. Volunteers have worked to clear the way for the fish.

Ligonee Creek in Sag Harbor is one of the routes alewives have taken to reach spawning grounds. Volunteers have worked to clear the way for the fish.

By Emily J. Weitz

You don’t hear much about alewife populations on sport-fishing boats in Montauk, and you don’t see alewives on the menu at Sen. These fish are not eaten by humans, so their health and numbers only impacts us in an indirect way. But they are excellent indicators of the overall health of our environment, as they are integral to the survival of many other species.

“It’s like a Jenga game,” says Laura Stephenson, who will be leading an educational hike sponsored by SOFO next week. “You take one out and everything falls. Alewives are one integral part of the ecosystem for the larger fish. They’re food for birds and larger fish, and we use them as bait fish.”

In recent years, environmentalists have become well aware of the importance of alewives, and of their plight.

“It’s a big thing right now,” says Stephenson. “Getting alewives up the river is a hot item in the environmental world.  People are recognizing the dwindling numbers of alewives.”

Alewife restoration projects have had great success in other regions, and currently there is an effort to restore alewives in the Peconic River. The reason for these successes is simple: we know what is standing in the way of a thriving alewife population. It’s us.

“These fish don’t live in our waters,” says Stephenson. “They live in salt water. But they come to fresh water to spawn. They have their babies in the fresh water and then return to the salt water. Then they come back to the place they were born to spawn again.”

This migration traverses hundreds of miles, taking the alewives from their birthplace at Long Pond or another freshwater body all the way up to the northern Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Maine or Canada.

“There are historical records that the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt have found that say there were alewives back in the 1600s and 1700s,” says Stephenson. “Then, when they built the turnpike and the old railroad, it cut off access to Long Pond. The alewives come through Peconic Bay, through Sag Harbor Cove, and they want to make it to Long Pond.”

Some years, they can still make it. When the groundwater is high, like in 2010, after a lot of snow, the alewives can win the uphill battle to Long Pond, said Stephenson.

“But if they have blocked access, they won’t make it back there,” she said. “If they can’t make it back, they can die trying. Last year we saw a lot of deaths as they tried to make it to Ligonee Creek (which leads to Long Pond). The problem is there are so many polluted water bodies and so many bodies that have been cut off, that there is a limited number of good spawning places.”

Long Pond is one of them – Stephenson says it’s one of the few water bodies of its kind.

“Surrounded by undeveloped land, pristine, with great water quality,” she says. “We’ve got a lot going for us here.”

One of the best things we have going is that, even though there are obstacles to the restoration of alewives at Ligonee Creek and Long Pond, these obstacles are surmountable.

“Ligonee is a great case,” says Stephenson. “There are a lot of small problems that need fixing. There are little culverts that need to be fixed and replaced. Ligonee has two or three undersized culverts leading up to Long Pond.”

If these culverts were replaced by larger ones, the alewives could get through.

“When the roads were put in,” says Stephenson, “they didn’t think about the fish. They wanted to move the water under the road, so they put in whatever would work best to move the water fastest without thinking about the fish.”

Another issue is the height issue: the fish can’t get up into the freshwater bodies.

“If we build a rock ramp with resting pools, these fish will be able to get up. Anything higher than six inches, they can’t make it.”

At the hike this weekend, Stephenson will take participants past Ligonee Creek right at the time they are making their migration. They will probably see the fish not being able to make it over, and Stephenspon hopes this will raise awareness about the plight of the alewives.

“These fish travel so far,” she says. “And their life span is so short. They come back to where they were born to spawn, and if they don’t have that opportunity, it’s a waste of the species.”

Laura Stephenson will lead a hike past Ligonee Creek to discuss alewives on Saturday, April 14. Meet at 10 a.m. at SOFO.

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