By Claire Walla
Last month, hundreds of beached alewives washed up along the dry rocky shores of Ligonee Brook, just under the Brick Kiln Road overpass.
And in the continuing effort to conserve environmental sustainability here on the East End, people like Dai Dayton of Friends of the Long Pond Green Belt (FLPGB) are trying to make sure this never happens again.
“The biggest problem is the culverts,” Dayton said, referring to two round tubes that tunnel the water through Ligonee Brook under Brick Kiln Road.
Surrounded by mud and foliage after heavy rains and large-scale snow melt, the mouths of these access points clog easily, which is what many suspect has lead to the veritable alewife massacre that occurred back in April. She added that alewives have historically used Long Pond to spawn, making Ligonee a vital link.
“We want to continue that [cycle],” Dayton added.
Recently, it was announced that environmental consulting company Land Use Ecological Services has won a bid from the state to design a comprehensive plan for Ligonee Brook that would improve fish migration. Though a contract has yet to be signed, Dr. Will Bowman — who will oversee the project — has already explored the Ligonee area.
“I ran out to Ligonee [last month] because I knew I needed to see how the alewife run was doing while the fish were still there,” Bowman said of these “preliminary investigations.”
Bowman cannot discuss the brook in detail until the contract is signed, but he hopes to get the design project underway as soon as possible, ideally in time for next year’s lively school of Long Pond-bound fish.
The root of the effort to save the alewife population here in Sag Harbor stems back to 2009, when Laura Stephenson — who then worked as the Peconic Estuary Program (PEP) coordinator for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — oversaw the donation of $80,000 in grant money to five projects in Suffolk County aimed at restoring fish passages. Stephenson left the organization in December 2010 to work for Assemblyman Fred Thiele, but said that in addition to Ligonee Brook, money would also go toward restoring alewife activity at Moore’s Drain in Southold, and other “fish passage restoration” sites in East Hampton, Shelter Island and Riverhead.
“It’s a regional issue,” Stephenson continued. “Their habitats are declining because of pollution and development. We’re so lucky here on the East End to have places like Long Pond — it’s almost 90 acres of fresh water and it’s not developed at all.”
Stephenson added that alewives typically spawn in fresh water, which is why providing easy access to Long Pond via Ligonee Brook is integral to the fish’s longevity.
“If we can get them to spawn, we can save the population not only here [in Sag Harbor], but on the East End,” she said.
Admittedly, Stephenson said efforts to save the sea creature are not exactly laced with culinary motives.
“Some cultures like to eat them,” she noted, but added these rather bony fish are not entirely to her liking. Saving them, she said, “is really just because they’re part of the ecosystem.”
Typically thought of as a bait fish, alewives can be found dangling from hooks at the end of fishing lines, but they are also a natural food source for much of the area’s biggest catch: blue fish, in particular. In other words, eliminate alewives from the food chain, and other fish populations suffer, too.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Stephenson continued. “Take one piece out and it’s not complete.”
At this point, Land Use Ecological Services is on track to draft a plan that would improve alewife access to Long Pond, but the current grant money issued by PEP (which amounts to about $16,000 for Ligonee Brook alone) would only take the project through this first phase in the process. Once the design is complete, Stephenson said it would be up to the town to secure additional monies to implement the construction project, if it’s approved.