Something Fishy: Hundres of Alewives High and Dry

Posted on 27 April 2011

Heller_Dead Fish in Ligonee Creek_0152

By Claire Walla

The first thing you’d notice is the smell.

Last week, the small stretch of Brick Kiln Road that passes over Ligonee Brook in Sag Harbor gave off a stultifying scent as pungent as a sushi shop in August without central air.

It caught Richard Sawyer off guard.

“I never would have noticed it if I was driving,” Sawyer said. But last Tuesday, April 19, Sawyer had dropped his auto off at the Getty station and was forced to stroll home en plein air. After investigating the stench, he stumbled on something quite strange.

“I had never seen so many dead fish before in my life!” he exclaimed over the phone.

Peering over the edge of the road and into the shallow creek bed, last week one could have seen hundreds of lifeless fish lying immobile in the mostly dry creek.

As of last Thursday, the scaly creatures were still relatively whole, although many were decapitated.

“They weren’t yesterday,” said Fred Werner, who was passing through the area last Thursday, April 21 on his habitual midday commute back to his home in Noyac from the Sag Harbor Post Office.

“Yesterday, they were all in one piece,” he exclaimed. “They looked like they had just lain down and died.”

Larry Penny of the East Hampton natural resources department said the situation peaked his interest, although he had no prior knowledge of the fish.

“I noticed something funny there when we got that big rain,” Penny said of the downpour that drenched the village April 17. “The water was up over the road.”

While on the phone, Penny checked the notebook in which he records rainfall measurements and said he recorded two inches of precipitation that Sunday.

According to Penny, and according to Fred Werner’s son, Alex (an avid Sag Harbor-based fishermen), the carcasses in question are almost certainly alewives, which are typically seen in their greatest numbers mid-April.

Penny explained that alewives seek fresh water in order to spawn, which might explain why they were in Ligonee Brook, a tributary of fresh-water-basin Long Pond. Because of record rainfalls last year, Penny said the fish — typically concentrated in the North Sea area — were actually found in Long Pond last year.

“They have to spawn in fresh water, and then they have to leave. It’s conceivable that they had spawned and were leaving,” Penny said. But, he added, it’s more likely the alewives were still on their way in when water levels dropped and they met their demise.

“It can happen real quick,” he said of the drainage.

Though from the looks of it, such a massacre may seem to indicate all is not well for the alewife population, but Alex Werner believes the contrary to be true.

“Having a school of alewives in [Sag Harbor] Bay is good,” Werner said, because alewives are typically prey for bigger, more coveted fish for local anglers.

“It means the bigger fish are right behind them,” he added. “It’s the first sign of spring.”

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